so you want to be a writer?

I realize not everyone is as enamored with castles as I am (fools though they may be), so I thought I’d take a break from my countdown this week and post something else that’s been on my mind lately.

I’ve been working on my second book for a few months now, and while it started off with a bang (as they often do), it’s devolved into an outright battle to get the words onto the page. And that got me thinking.

It’s always interesting to me how much my writing style shifts when I read other authors. I think I have my own voice, but reading another author for any amount of time dramatically shifts my tone and voice. Sometimes it’s fun, and produces interesting results, but makes me wonder about the persistence of my own, authentic voice.

I’ve been re-reading Bukowski again lately, and I won’t go on about his style, there’s enough drivel about that already. But I will say it’s refreshing, and oddly centering. His clean prose sort of cuts away at all the fat I feel my own writing is burdened with, and it’s a nice way to hit the reset button and get back to basics.

I read something in his book, “Women” this morning, which set me thinking. He said:

“Most people are much better at saying things in letter than in conversation, and some people can write artistic, inventive letters, but when they try a poem or story or novel they become pretentious.”

Charles Bukowski, “Women”

That struck a chord, because as a writer, I’m always afraid that what I’m writing is pretentious or lacks originality. He said he has to write, he can’t stop writing, that it’s a form of insanity. Well that’s troubling. I write as a last-ditch effort. It’s a hurdle, a burden, something that must be done… or else. Even Bukowski’s tombstone bears the words, “Don’t try.”

It was a favorite phrase of his, and when asked what it meant, he explained, “Somebody at one of these places asked me: ‘What do you do? How do you write, create?’ You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try…”

And then of course, there’s his famous poem, “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
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
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.

Charles Bukowski, “So you want to be a writer”

Well, shit. That’s just the beginning of the poem, and he’s already nailed my ass to the wall. If I don’t try, nothing happens. I quite contentedly sit and do nothing. Read a book, watch the birds in the bird bath on my patio, lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling for a few hours. It’s simple. I’m simple. I don’t require writing to be happy. I don’t require much of anything to be happy, except to be left alone.

With my wife. Of course.

But is Bukowski right? I get the idea behind it, that the writing has to be genuine. But can’t there be any other motivation for art than an unstoppable inner torrent that comes gushing out unbidden and untamed? What of this desperate need to write, and the essential mandate not to try? I write because it serves a purpose, and because–I hope–someday, I will be successful enough to write exclusively. For me, writing is not cathartic. It never has been. It’s not meditative or relaxing. It’s something I do to get something else, a means to an end. Does that come through in the writing? I don’t know. I’m fully aware that the cliched tortured writer is the thing people want. Robert Frost famously said, “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Well the only tears I have come from the dreadful process of wrenching these abominable words out of my unwilling mind. Talk about a tortured writer!

How does that compare to someone like Bukowski, who has to write, or die. One of my favorite Hemingway quotes encapsulates it perfectly: “Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

Hell! That’s not intimidating at all. I sit down at the typewriter and earnestly struggle. But both those men were raging alcoholics, one who drank himself to half to death, and the other who shot himself in the head. So maybe they had something deep inside them they had to get out. They wrote to work things out, to exorcise their demons. I, on the other hand, am a pretty happy, well-adjusted guy. Nothing much bothers me, I’m pretty relaxed, and generally love the way things are headed in my life. When I go to bed at night, my head hits the pillow, and I’m out. No sleepless, angst-filled nights for me. Don’t get me wrong, I often suffer from what the Japanese call boketto–the act of gazing vacantly into the distance without a thought. But it’s not for some hopelessly weary mind, aching for relief. I just like to daydream.

Am I thus doomed to be a mediocre writer? Is pain necessary for a profound creative process?

I’ve read some pretty terrible writers, and they’re rich and famous. Or at least their books fill row after row at my local Barnes & Noble. And that amounts to the same thing. Very bland, uninteresting people write very bland, uninteresting books all the time, and people love reading them. Does that say more about the author, or the reader?

What if you just want something bad enough, you make it happen? What if you want to be a writer, and you persevere and fight through the doldrums long enough that you overcome all obstacles and succeed? Isn’t that worth something? I submit that it is, though I won’t speculate on what…

Suffice it to say, while I don’t enjoy writing, I certainly enjoy having written. It’s kind of like working out, I suppose. No fun while you’re doing it (unless you’re one of those people…), but rewarding in the aftermath. So until I find a better creative outlet, or a rich uncle dies and relieves me of the necessity for financial independence, I’ll continue writing and producing the best work that I can. After all, I aim to have this novel finished up in the next few months (I may come back and delete this if that doesn’t pan out). And with any luck, someday my abilities and ambition will finally meet, and resolve their infernal détente.

7 Comments

  1. I just read your article. Truly enjoyed it. Is written as if your talking to the reader and connects you to your statement. I found interesting you saying you write to get it done and of course to reach be it a goal, dream, and/ or success. Unfortunately, I’m not someone who would be a very proficient person to evaluate your statement in a writer who seems extremely intelligent and creative. I did enjoy it and your quotes from writers you have perhaps been inspired by. I would love to read your first book. If you let me know the name I will get it and read it. I have lots of hobbies. I’m a note taker. I have journals with excerpts I enjoy after an observation or a thought. I read a lot. One if my favorite type of books are 1800 written books with annotated notes. Actually, any book with annotated notes fascinates me. I do nit have a favorite subject as I change from tome to time depending on my mood. You must definitely be a very interesting and perfectionist in all you do. I’ve gone on and on. Sorry. I’m in a on and in mood. Lol. I hope you can continue with your dreams and finish your book soon so that you can start another and reach the plateau you do desire.

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    1. Virginia! Thank you so much for that lovely message. Sounds like you’ve got some interesting hobbies yourself! Have you ever thought about writing a book? As to your question, my first book is called “The Sovereign”, you can find it on Amazon, just search my name and the title. It has a lot of notes and references at the end, plus there’s a map right here on my website to help explain the world. Thanks again, and happy reading!

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    1. Thanks for the kind words! I’ll check out the almanac, writers can be a very peculiar lot, so reading about them is always fun.

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  2. Loved this piece about becoming a writer. Got a good uplift from it, not that I am trying to write a book, just would like too!

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    1. Well I’m glad you found it uplifting! It’s always so hard to tell how your own writing will come off until much later. If you’d like to write a book, you should! Even if it’s just for you, and just for fun. You never know what you might discover…

      Like

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