On Writing


On Writing
By Charles Bukowski
Canongate – £14.99

     Not since George Orwell has the condition of being down-and-out been          so well recorded.
                                                      The New York Times

     A laureate of American low life.

”If a man truly desires to write, then he will. Rejection and ridicule will only strengthen him… There is no losing in writing, it will make your toes laugh as you sleep, it will make you stride like a tiger, it will fire the eye and put you face to face with death. You will die a fighter, you will be honoured in hell. The luck of the word. Go with it, send it.”

Well you can’t be more honest than that, and if the late, great, Charles Bukowski was anything, he was an impeccably honest man. Even to the point of his own detriment. But hey: ”to stride like a tiger.” ”to die a fighter.”

What more could one ask for? Other than to be paid of course….

Indeed, ever since the advent of the world wide web, replete with a hundred thousand million blogs of ill-repute and complete and utter bollocks (not necessarily in that order), writing – for all of its fight, all of its freneticism, all of its freedom and potential brilliance – has devolved unto a nigh worthless plateau of inexorable mundanity.

Because today, everyone’s a writer. Everyone’s a winner. That’s right folks: everyone believes they’ll be ”honoured in hell.”

And rightly so. Everyone from Katie Big-Tits to Justin No-Talent has a tale to tell and an autobiography with which to saturate the down-trodden’n’equally futile world of cum-placated literature.

Me? I’d sooner be boiled in skunk piss, than so much as read a flippant comma by said soulless, worthless dregs of vile human excrement. Up for a relatively huge advance. Up for some sort of glib, transparent award. Up for anything, so long as it’s a hundred thousand miles removed from the likes of Bukowski and Hemingway.

For such is the way of the seemingly wayward world; which probably explains why I felt so strongly compelled to remind myself of some true writing. Of some true vision. Oh, the hell with it: with some truth.

Every now and then, one just needs to read some fucking truth. And like I said, they don’t come more honest (nor more brutal) than Bukowski – how’s about this for a letter:

[To Harold Norse] May 12, 1964

”[…] Yes, you’re right: failure is the advantage and I mean the failure of not being held up phonepole high while you’re working with the broad or the poem or the wax statue of Himmler. It’s best to stay loose, work wild and easy and fail any way you want to. Once you polevault 17 feet they want 18 and it ends up you might break your leg trying. The mob must always be dismissed as something as insane as a river of vomit. Once you put the mob in the wastebasket where it belongs you’ve got a chance to go a good ten and maybe get a split verdict. I do not speak of The Culture of Snobbery which is practiced by many of the rich and the fakirs and rope coilers and electricians and sports writers because they have an idea they have POWER. They are all dependent on the mob like the leaves hanging to the tree branch. What I mean is the kind of dependence that leaves you free to operate widely because you don’t need a kiss on the cheek from the old lady next door, you don’t need praiseology or to lecture before the Armenian Society of Pasadena writers. I mean, fuck that. More paper, more beer, more luck, loose bowels, an occasional piece of ass and good weather, who needs more? Rent, sure. Now I don’t know what I’m talking about any more? That’s the danger of talking. You talk talk talk all wax and wallow and pretty soon you don’t know what you are saying… I don’t… that’s why I feel much better when I am mostly quiet.”

Or this:

[To Lafayette Young] October 25, 1970

[…] I have to drink and gamble to get away from this typewriter. Not that I don’t love this old machine when it’s working right. But knowing when to go to it and knowing when to stay away from it, that’s the trick. I really don’t want to be a professional writer, I wanna write what I wanna write. else, it’s all been wasted. I don’t want to sound holy about it; it’s not holy – it’s more like Popeye the Sailor Man. But Popeye knew when to move. So did Hemingway, until he started talking about ”discipline”; Pound also talked about doing one’s ”work.” that’s shit, but I’ve been luckier than both of them because I’ve worked the factories and slaughterhouses and park benches and I know that WORK and DISCIPLINE are dirty words. I know what they meant, but for me, it has to be a different game. it’s just like a good woman: if you fuck her 3 times a day, 7 days a week, it usually isn’t going to be much good. everything has to be set. of course, i remember one, it worked that way with her. of course, we were drinking wine and starving and had nothing else to do except worry about death and rent and the steel world, so it worked with us. (Jane.) but now I’m so old and ugly and the girls seldom come round anymore, so it’s horses and beer, and waiting. waiting on death. waiting on the typewriter. it’s easy to be smartass and brilliant when you’re 20. I wasn’t because I was always rather subnormal in my way. now I’m stronger and weaker, but now with the blade against my throat, my choice OR not, it’s there, very much, and I haven’t loved life very much; mostly it’s been a very dirty game. born set up to die. we’re nothing but bowling pins, my friend […].

Nothing but ”bowling pins, my friend,” now there’s a line – along with an array of others one could muse and be inspired over so far as the above two quotations are concerned.

What was it Jean Genet once said of Bukowski: ”The best poet in America.”
With the exception of Dylan, damn right.

And what was it Leonard Cohen is purported to have said: ”Bukowski brought everyone down to earth, even the angels.”
With the exception of Lennon, damn right.

If you only get to read one book over the coming months, make sure it’s On Writing by Charles Bukowski. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll be many things. But most importantly, you’ll be reminded.

Reminded of how great, writing (really) can be.

David Marx


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