Bukowski's advice


Charles Bukowski—the obscenely prolific American poet, novelist, womaniser, drunk—was the king of a style of writing that is as brutally sharp as a too-early-in-the-morning hangover. And his headstone, his final mark upon the world, gives us a pretty strong clue about his philosophy on writing and life.

Every Sunday morning, I try to put out a new issue of Rabbit Hole. It's become a habit—a good one, creative-wise. I've become more comfortable with writing and finishing stuff, which are two enormous ticks in my book. And to keep them coming, I've developed another habit—a kind of ritual.

Every time I release a new issue, I have to start working on the next one the same day.

It's my way of tricking myself to keep going; to drown out those nagging questions: 'Does anybody like this thing? Am I embarrassing myself? Is it time to stop?'

So, for me, it's better to ignore all of that as best I can. I flag dwelling too much on how well I did with the last one by starting a new one because—let me tell you—it's agony waiting to see if anyone will read it each week. But people do (I can tell by looking at the stats repeatedly), and the fact people do is crazy to me and perversely exciting. (Who reads personal essays these days? It's great. Thank you.)

If I was taking the more traditional road to being a writer, I'd be sending things off for publication and maybe waiting six months or more for a reply, and if I did get accepted, another six months or a year to see it in print, and even then I wouldn't know if people actually read it.

This is so much better. I don't have to worry about all that. I write, a few people read, hopefully we both go our separate ways happy for time spent.

'Don't try'

At the moment, I'm reading Bukowski again. I haven't read him in ages. I was given Notes of a Dirty Old Man as a present. It's a selection of essays he wrote in the late 60s for an underground paper called Open City.

As Bukowski explains in the foreword to the book, after being asked to submit something—anything he wanted—he gave them a short review. But immediately after, he changed tack:

"One day after the races, I sat down and wrote the heading, NOTES OF A DIRTY OLD MAN, opened a beer, and the writing got done by itself.  There was not the tenseness or the careful carving with a bit of a dull blade, that was needed to write something for The Atlantic Monthly.  Nor was there any need to simply tap out a flat and careless journalism (er, journalese??).  There seemed to be no pressures.  Just sit by the window, lift the beer and let it come.  Anything that wanted to arrive, arrived."

And the columns are great—rough, ugly, fascinating, brutal, true (if such a word can be used to describe anything).

When he's not talking about getting drunk, getting into fights, scoring with women, not scoring with women, or thinking about or wishing he was scoring with women, he's saying raw and sometimes seemingly contemporary things that reveal the merry-go-roundness of politics, history and our all-too-human, all-too-common, deep-down all-round-sh*ttiness. For example, I'm thinking of this one column, written about the aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination, where Bukowski says that in times of turmoil,

"anti-human and reactionary forces tend to solidify their prejudices and to use all ruptures as a means of knocking natural Freedom off the goddamned end seat at the bar."

I'm looking at you every male over forty on my TV screen on the news every night! Except who has a TV anymore? And who the hell watches the news?

I envy Bukowski's style. For someone as uptight as me, the way he writes is so attractive, yet so ugly, which is probably why it's attractive. His writing is effortless. It's clear. It's honest past the point of being monstrous, right around the corner and back again, looking and sounding not monstrous at all, but human, understandable, at times even endearing (except when he's being a dick to women).

Bukowski himself is the real poetry. It's just him 'as lived.' And although he's tortured, his prose isn't. It flows like a broken nose.

(Man, that metaphor's corny. I want to revise it. But in keeping with this week's theme, I'll let it stand.)

In '94 Bukowski died of leukemia. The epitaph on his tombstone simply reads:

"Don't try."

In an interview his second wife, Linda Bukowski, explained why. To accompany his entry in Who's Who In America, Bukowski was asked if he'd like to say something about his personal philosophy, and that was the only thing he said on the subject. Other artists and writers had written a page or two in response; Bukowski's was just those two words.

He said the the same thing in a letter commiserating with his friend and fellow writer, William Packard. For Bukowski, writing is about waiting—waiting for whatever it is that desperately wants to be written:

"Too many writers write for the wrong reasons. They want to get famous or they want to get rich or they want to get laid by the girls with bluebells in their hair. (Maybe that last ain't a bad idea).

When everything works best it's not because you chose writing but because writing chose you. It's when you're mad with it, it's when it's stuffed in your ears, your nostrils, under your fingernails. It's when there's no hope but that."

"Don't try. Don't work," he says towards the end of the letter. "It's there. It's been looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb." Adding a few lines later,

"Writing a poem is as easy as beating your meat or drinking a bottle of beer."

Oooo-kaaaaaay... Not the words I would have used, but he certainly knows how to go for the nuts of an idea.

In his poem "so you want to be a writer?", he emphasised the same point:

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

And later in the poem,

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.

Reading this and a lot of his other work—especially his weekly column—confirms my sneaking suspicion that art is not as hard as I make it. And I think it helps too that what he says, and how he says it, is so simple and direct. It's honest.

Bukowski's writing does have the immediacy of a broken nose, and the same sense of urgency too.

He might have spent a long time waiting for something to say, but when it came, it came in a rush.

Sneaking up on simple

But I think there were also times when he fretted; when his words went into hiding. Like in this poem titled "writers block":

the typewriter sits silent, it’s as if you’ve
been betrayed, it’s as if a murder has

when will the keys
beat into the
it’s so very easy to die long before the
fact of it.

I look at the machine resting under its black
cover; an unpaid gas bill sleeps on top of


I sit back down in the chair and wait; then I
decide to fool the

I write this
with a ballpoint
in a red
I am sneaking up on a poem;
there will soon be something for that
to do!

I guess Bukowski's philosophy on writing is basically: 'It should be easy, and if it's not, you're not doing it right. You're trying too hard.' And maybe that's why his prose doesn't do any more than it has to, but does a great deal when it does.

Thanks so much for reading.

Now... Sh*t. Next week...


This week's Rabbit Hole is a double issue with a very special guest! Part one, "Hoffman's challenge".