Charles Bukowski on Being ‘Mad’ With Writing

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Do we choose our lovers? It doesn’t seem likely. The most you can say about love is that we choose to stay in it, in a way. That once it happens, we choose to stay in place and allow it to be, allow it to develop and grow, and stay in place even when it grows in weird, unexpected and uncomfortable positions. But that initial flowering of love? Where it plants itself? It doesn’t seem like we choose that, right? Time, place, person, these are all subject to malleability and happenstance. If I had done X instead of Y at A time, then would I have still met B person in order to “fall in love” with them? I’m not good at algebra, but you see what I’m saying?

In this same way, do we choose what we love to do? Did I choose to love writing? Which brings up another interesting question, are people who love to do something early always good at it? I don’t think that necessarily follows. There are things I love and love doing (and are still subject to the question of whether I “chose” them) that I’m not good at personally doing, like professional wrestling, art, movie-making, music, etc. But I would wager that most of us have something we “fell in love with” early and are good at doing it. Did we choose it or is it as subject to that malleability and happenstance as the person we fall in love with?

I’m asking all these questions and pondering them after reading Charles Bukowski’s 1990 letter to friend and fellow poet William Packard. He sent it two days before Christmas. I would’ve been a few months old at this point. The letter is an interesting time capsule as a window into the mind of Bukowski and his worldview, particularly as it relates to writing. But also, his goofiness because of the, uh, doodles in the margins, and his misspellings.

Bukowski famously did not receive any sort of critical or commercial success until quite literally decades after beginning to write and trying to get published. Posthumously, that story is hard to tell, though. Think about it. I’m writing about Bukowski nearly 30 years after his death. When someone has such purchase in your brain, you associate them with great success. But that’s not the whole story. In fact, success in general tends to be like that: We see the manifestation of success, but we don’t see the toil that went into it. That sort of toil informs what Bukowski wrote in the Packard letter.

You can read the full letter here, but I’ll provide the relevant excerpt:

“On WAITING I know what he means. 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.”

He goes on to tell a story about being in Atlanta and using newspapers to keep warm against the freezing air, penciling some words into the white margins, knowing that “nobody would ever see it.”

“It was a cancer madness. And it was never work or planned or part of a school. It was. That’s all.”

It was. It just is. Sure, Bukowski himself obviously would’ve liked to be successful at writing earlier on, so that he didn’t have to do blue collar jobs and such. And sure, we all want that. All of us writers want to write for a living instead of the other thing we’re doing, but that’s not why we write, as Bukowski said. At least, I’ll speak for myself and say that’s not why I write. Yes, I’d love to write that one piece that brings me success in terms of financial security, and yes, I’d love the validation of The New Yorker or The Atlantic or whatever other publication, but that’s not why I write.

I write because I’m mad with it. Because I need to. Because it chose me. Because it is. Even this blog, which I’ve written before has provided a nice catharsis and respite in this troubling year, and I’m thankful to have restarted it, I write because I need to, even the silly posts, the film reviews, the wrestling ones, etc. I write them because I need to. Again, sure, it’s nice if people read what I write, but the first point and always the first point, is going to be that I need to. That’s the catharsis. Everything after — getting published, other people reading and enjoying your work, money — is great, and I’ve also written at length about how the purpose of writing is for it to be read, but that’s a different question than why I write. That purpose is more the past tense, having written, not the present, why am I writing? I write because I need to. You see what I’m saying? Even if it didn’t get read, I still would have done it in the first place. Or put a different way, in the act of creation, I don’t know that other half. It could be widely read or hardly read or only have my wretched eyeballs inhale it, but I don’t know that in the moment of creation. So, trying to write to that moment is missing the point of creation. And could be a detriment because now you’re focused on audience rather than the story.

As Bukowski said, we try too hard. Don’t try. Just be.

What do you think?

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