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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Number 43: Charles Bukowski "So You Want To Be A Writer?"

So You Want to Be a Writer?

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.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you're not ready.

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.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

-- Charles Bukowski

Hap Notes: Charles Bukowski, born Heinrich Karl Bukowski (1920-1994) in Andernach Germany, enjoyed his "outsider" reputation with relish. He loved to poke holes in "established" values by whipping out the seamy side of life in all its stinking glory. He reveled in readings at which he drank, cursed at the audience and made lewd remarks to the females in the group. This, in large part, was his schtick- it allowed him to make a living as a poet (which came late in his life, anyway- his 40s) and satisfy audiences full of sincere middle-class kids who wanted to see a ragged rebel poet tell off the world. He was allowed, indeed, even encouraged, to act exactly as he wanted to and he did not usually take the high road.

Bukowski was enormously prolific and wrote hundreds of poems. About fifty percent of those poems are mediocre diatribes describing a life of a man who felt abandoned by life, disgusted by the rigid routine lives we are forced into and who turned to alcohol to make it through the dim days of his ordinary street life. Another twenty-five percent of his poems stink on ice. Most poets write crappy, unsuccessful poems so I mean this as no particular slight to his work- but when his poems stink-- they reek. Then we have the last twenty-five percent which are revelations. They are inspired, riding on a tide of some universal magic and come "roaring out." All in all, that's not a bad average. But I caution you when reading his very easy-to-read work to listen very closely to what he is saying. Most of the time, he's weeping, no matter what he says he's doing. Okay, sometimes he's wailing.

This poem, taken from a posthumous 2003 collection of his work is a later poem, written in the first age of computers. While he doesn't quite come out and say it, I will: his work has spawned countless legions of young would-be poets writing utter crap or, at the very least, crap that should have stayed in their journals. He takes writing seriously in spite of his antic posturings. When he was first published, he made no money at all from it. He couldn't have bought a bus ticket to San Diego with the earnings. He wanted to be published. He thought enough of his work to want it to see print. Don't forget that, no matter what he throws at you to take you off the track. And man, this boy can throw some pretty harsh crap.

"Outsider" poetry is kind of a zen koan of a misnomer. If one is really an "outsider" it's difficult to get noticed- hence the name. Once you get a little small press attention, you certainly aren't in the main stream of contemporary literature but you're encroaching on its territory. Once you get published, you are more inside than out. You gradually become an "insider." It takes all your will power to stay "outside." It's almost impossible to achieve.

Bukowski is telling you as much in this poem. Writing has got to be something that burns a hole in your soul-- it hurts- this drive, if you don't do it- he gives ample illustrations of this. You don't care whether you are outside or inside- you just write to save your sanity, your soul, your life. And you don't have to say to your mate or your pals, "I've written this new poem and I need you to tell me if it's okay." It would be nice to think he is trying to save us all from those people. I choose to think of this as a little gift Bukowski is trying to give us. You can publish yourself in this era. So shut up and write.

Bukowski is a mass of contradictions, just as we all are. He was more literate than he pretended not to be, just read his poem on Carson McCullers. He wrote that heartbreaking Bluebird poem; he has substance and style. Everybody tries to steal his muse. He is still a bone in the throat of literature for many reasons. He's trying to clean up his mess in this poem- the mess he left by inspiring a lot of middle-class kids to write their despair in the "style" of Bukowski.

There is something wonderful in a poet who inspires this kind of imitation and something horrible, too. That's Bukowski's curse. There is a great deal of value in opening up the flood gates of poetry and letting in the deluge. Just as there's something wonderful in the idea of the internet allowing us all to write whatever we want in fits and starts of self expression.

But there's a cautionary tale here, too, because not everything you read on the internet is worth your time-- it's ill conceived, juvenile, mean-spirited and banal (and that's the nicest thing one can say about it.) The same goes for poetry. Bukowski saw this. Just because he had a bottle of beer in his hand, a sex drive and a voice full of gravel does not mean he should be taken at face value like so much of the imitative poetry he inadvertently fathered.

Sometimes, though, his poems, his imitators and the internet yield up diamonds that would have been ignored or hidden forever. Remember Keats with "Chapman's Homer"? When you find the hidden diamonds you are struck with profound awe. Bukowski can do that to you, too.

Here's a good Bukowski quote: "If you're going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is."

You can find more Bukowski here:

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