Charles Bukowski On Writing

‘On Writing’ by Charles Bukowski   (2015) – 214 pages – Edited by Abel DeBritto

9780062396006

There is still a lot of controversy about Charles Bukowski so before you read this article I want you to read Bukowski’s famous poem of writing advice called ‘So You Want to be a Writer’.   This poem might change your mind about him.  Then again, maybe not.

Charles Bukowski, the King of the Underground, would never be mistaken for a respectable person.  Lewd, crude, and rude are three words often used to describe him.

“I don’t write so much now.  I’m getting on to 33, pot-belly and creeping dementia.  Sold my typewriter to go on a drunk 6 or 7 years ago and haven’t got enough non-alcoholic dollars to buy another.”

‘On Writing’ is a collection of the letters that Bukowski wrote to editors and to other writers from early in his career until the end.  After some early success getting stories and poems published, he went on “a ten-year drunk” during which he sold his typewriter for alcohol and horse race money but still submitted a few poems to editors in longhand.  He was persistent.  Around 1960 he took a job at the post office, got another typewriter, and wrote some more poetry.  Beginning in  1967 he wrote a column called “Notes From a Dirty Old Man” for an underground newspaper.  In 1969 Bukowski accepted an offer from Black Sparrow Press to become a full-time writer.  He was 49 years old.

“I have one of two choices – stay in the post office and go crazy … or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”    

The following year he published his first novel, ‘Post Office’.

What kind of writing advice does Charles Bukowski give in ‘On Writing’?  Above all, “Don’t try”.  This is the actual epitaph that is written on his gravestone.

“We work too hard. We try too hard. Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. It’s been looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb. There’s been too much direction. It’s all free, we needn’t be told. Classes? Classes are for asses. Writing a poem is as easy as beating your meat or drinking a bottle of beer.”

Here are some more good lines of advice from ‘On Writing’.

“It’s best to stay loose, work wild and easy and fail any way you want to.”   

“My writing is jagged and harsh; I want it to remain that way, I don’t want it smoothed out.”  

“That’s crude.  I like it.”

 “I’m not interested in poetry.  I don’t know what interests me.  Non-dullness, I suppose.  Proper poetry is dead poetry even if it looks good.”

Bukowski also expresses some literary criticism of other writers in ‘On Writing’.  Here is his take on the poet Conrad Aiken:

“His main fault was that he wrote too well; the silk-cotton sounds almost hid the meaning, and, of course, this is the game of most shit-poets: to appear more profound than they really are, to sneak in little delicious darts and then retire to their safe comforts.”  

589088505Charles Bukowski’s literary heroes were  Knut Hamsun, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, John Fante, and Henry Miller.  Those first two were Nazi sympathizers who also wrote fiction.  Lately there has been a lot of talk about whether Bukowski himself was a Nazi sympathizer.  After all he was born in Germany.  He may have been, but he wasn’t much interested in politics at all.  His interests were elsewhere.

“Right now I’m into a great many things: screenplay, correcting somebody else’s screenplay, a short story and playing the horses and fighting with my girlfriend, and visiting my daughter, and then feeling bad and then feeling good, and all the rest of it.” 

He was given to saying outrageous things just to set people off.  I’ll end with one of his better lines.

“Most drunks I’ve known aren’t very interesting people.  Of course, most sober people aren’t either.”   

 

16 responses to this post.

  1. I like this line:
    the libraries of the world have
    yawned themselves to
    sleep
    but I think his advice is wrong. I’ve read some very fine books where I know the authors have laboured long and hard over their words. And how can anyone say they don’t like poetry? Maybe not this poem, or that type of poetry, but all poetry? No, I don’t think so.

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Yes, a lot of Bukowski’s opinions seem to be to promote himself at the expense of other writers. You might say he was into crude self-promotion.
      My own opinion is that even the best poets only write a few poems that last, so a reader needs to wade through a lot of mediocre poetry to find the few good ones. My statement isn’t true of Shakespeare whose nearly every sonnet is fine.
      I do kind of agree with Bukowski that a writer shouldn’t work hard to write like someone else but must find his or her own original way of expressing oneself.

      BTW, your comment still wound up in my spam file where I rescued it.

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  2. *phew* Thanks for the rescue:) (I wonder what will happen to this one?)

    I’d agree that a lot of a poet’s oeuvre might be a bit pedestrian, it’s why (as a general rule subject to exceptions) I prefer anthologies rather than collections.
    And yes, of course an author should write in their own style. Too much bad Hemingway around IMO. But versatile writers try out different ways of writing which might owe something to another writer in the transitional phase, and IMO it’s a bit much to expect writers to be able to deliver their mature form without some faltering steps along the way.

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Your ‘steps along the way’ argument is quite convincing that a writer emulates other writers before arriving at their own style and thus must work at it to finally arrive at that point.
      One can almost hear Bukowski discouraging other writers who don’t write like his primitive style.
      It’s the old Paleface vs Redskin dichotomy, with the primitives on the Redskin side, and the ultra-refined highly cultured (eg Henry James) on the Paleface side I believe literature is better with both Palefaces and Redskins.

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  3. I think I might enjoy this one – the quotes are great!

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  4. I really liked this post. Thanks for writing it.

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  5. Bukowski is a writer that I need to read, never quite got around to him. Everything I’ve seen tells me I’ll enjoy his books I think.

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    • Hi Annabel,
      I’ve read a couple of his novels. ‘Post Office’ is about his job at the Post Office which he hated. I also read his novel ‘Women’ which a lot of women find offensive.

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  6. What a great review! I’ve never read Bukowski, though many of his books are published by Black Sparrow and I see them in used bookstores. He DOES sound like someone I’d like to read, so thanks for writing about him.

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    • Hi Kat,
      I’ve not been bowled over by either ‘Post Office’ or ‘Women’. Most other readers usually either love him or hate him. For me, ‘On Writing’ is probably his best book. He is a primitive and deliberately obnoxious in many of his opinions.

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  7. Posted by Kelly S on September 1, 2015 at 5:21 PM

    This sounds entertaining! Will have to add it to my never-ending list of books to read someday.

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    • Hi Kelly S.,
      Being a professional writer, you may prefer this non-fiction work, ‘On Writing’ more than his other work. One thing Charles Bukowski was, was persistent, and his persistence finally paid off big time.

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  8. Posted by Charles Behlen on October 21, 2020 at 3:23 AM

    The fun lies in working with a resistant mass. But, as Toni Morrison says, “If the work shows, it hasn’t been done.”

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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