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Clarify Your Position

Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous BoschThis passage from Henry Miller’s late book, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, has long spoken to me. I first found it when I was eighteen, the summer of a month-long solo road trip across the United States and back, the climax of which was the discovery of Big Sur. Those were my big time “writer” days, when I still fought against my own nature and tried to write fiction, when I still thought “experience” was something that needed to be sought out. It comes in the context of an answer to a young writer who asked Miller’s advice in a letter:

To those who protest that they are not understood, not appreciated, not accepted—how many of us ever are?—all I can say is: “Clarify your position.” (p. 396)

What the passage has always told me is, be humble and be attentive with readers. It worked against the temptation in me to declare those who might misunderstand or contradict me as dumb, or worse. No—writing is communication, at least the kind I want to do. Patience, not stubbornness. (Though, at least in his early works, Henry Miller claimed never to revise.)

It occurred to me today, walking down some stairs into the subway, that there are really two meanings in “clarify your position,” particularly with that magic phrase dangling out of context. The first is Miller’s, I think: try harder to clarify that which is your position so others will understand. The second is foreign to Miller’s rock-solid sense of himself: try harder to clarify what position you want to form and communicate.

The two meanings chase each other in circles. Explain something in a new way, and it is no longer the same thing. Nor can two different things can be explained in the same way.

Go to a New York party filled with writers, and you hear two stories—those out to write what they know and those out to write in order to know what they know. Are they really so different? And what, all along, do we mean by clarity?