Is Charles Bukowski a Self-Help Guru? Hear Five of His Brutally Honest, Yet Oddly Inspiring, Poems and Decide for Yourself

I don't know if he’s been replaced as a major influence on young, restless (and almost exclusively male) aspiring writers, but once upon a time—if you weren’t into the romantic wanderlust of Kerouac but still considered yourself a fringe character—it might be to the hard-boiled shit-talking of wise old man Charles Bukowski that you turned. Upon first learning this, and being a busy college student, I decided to take a crash course and checked out a documentary.

I did not find myself charmed all at once. But one can fall in love with an author’s persona yet loathe them on the page. Bukowski’s crudeness and bad humor on film could not hide the deep wells of sadness in which he seemed to swim, as if—like some ancient cynic philosopher—he knew something profound and terrible and spared us the telling of it by posing as a drunken, half-mad street-corner raconteur. I had to go and read him.

In his idiom—that of an eloquent streetwise barfly—Bukowski can be every bit as passionate and profound as his hero Dostoevsky. His unforgettable mixing of comic seediness and casual abuse with a deeply tragic mourning over the human condition, while not to everyone’s taste, make his decades-long struggle out of penury and obscurity a feat worthy of the telling in his semi-autobiographical prose and poetry.




But does it make him a role model? For anyone but certain young, mostly male, aspiring writers maybe spending more time drinking than writing, that is?

A fair number of people seem to think so, and I leave it to you to decide, first by listening to the Bukowski poems read here, posted on YouTube with heavy, inspirational background music. Some are given new titles to sound more like self-help seminars—such as “Reinvent Your Life” at the top (originally “No Leaders, Please”). The video reading called “Go all the way,” second from top, changes the title of “Roll the Dice,” a classic picture of Bukowski’s uncompromising commitment to “going all the way,” even if it means “freezing on a park bench” and “losing girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs and maybe your mind.”

Solidly middle-class parents might approve of the first poem’s sentiments, which could be wedged into a suitably vague, yet bold-sounding commencement speech or a job recruiter’s pep talk. But “Roll the Dice” simply goes too far. “It could mean jail, it could mean derision, mockery, isolation”? This won’t do at all. Hear another reading of “Roll the Dice” by inspirational rock star Bono further up, just after the more Bukowski-like Tom Waits reads “The Laughing Heart,” frequently referenced for its intensity of feeling. Like Thomas Hardy or Leonard Cohen, the bard of the barstools could look life straight in the eye, see all of its bleakness and violence, and still manage at times to catch a divine glimmer.

And for the many aspirants to whom Bukowski has appealed, we have, further up, “So, You Want to Be a Writer?” Before you hear, or read, this poem, be advised: these are not warm words of encouragement or helpful life-coaching in verse. It is the kind of raw talk no respectable writing teacher will give you, and maybe they’re right not to, who’s to say? Except a man who went all the way, froze on park benches, went to jail, lost girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs and maybe his mind? Read an excerpt of Bukowski’s writing advice below, and just above, hear the author himself read “Friendly Advice to a Lot of Young Men,” which urges them to do virtually anything they like, “But don’t write poetry.”

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-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
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.

Related Content:

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Inspiration from Charles Bukowski: You Might Be Old, Your Life May Be “Crappy,” But You Can Still Make Good Art

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Write Like an Architect: Short Primers on Writing with the Neat, Clean Lines of a Designer

We have another national crisis on our hands.

Our children are not only ill-equipped to read maps and tell time with analog clocks, their handwriting is in serious decline.

Forget cursive, which went the way of the dodo earlier in the millennium. Youngsters who are dab hands on the keyboard may have little impulse—or opportunity—to practice their printing.

Does it matter?

It sure as shootin’ might be during a zombie invasion, given the attendant breakdown of digital communication and the electricity that powered it.




But even in less dire times, legible penmanship is a good skill to master.

As Virginia Berninger, professor emeritus and principal investigator of the University of Washington’s Interdisciplinary Learning Disabilities Center, told The New York Times, “Handwriting — forming letters — engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.”

Hand lettering is also a complex neurological process, a workout involving various cognitive, motor, and neuromuscular functions.

There’s also a school of thought that teachers who still accept handwritten assignments unconsciously award the highest grades to pupils with the neatest penmanship, which is easier on tired eyes. Something to keep in mind for those gearing up to take the handwritten essay portions of the SAT and ACT.

Let's remember that letters are really just shapes.

The Finns and French have long-established uniformity with regard to handwriting. In the absence of classroom instruction, Americans have the freedom to peruse various penmanship styles, identify their favorite, and work hard to attain it.

(This writer is proof that penmanship can become part of the DNA through practice, having set out to duplicate my mother’s delightful, eccentric-to-the-point-of-illegibile hand at around the age of 8. I added a few personal quirks along the way. The result is I'm frequently bamboozled into serving as scribe for whatever group I happen to find myself in, and my children can claim they couldn't read the important handwritten instructions hurriedly left for them on Post-Its.)

Historically, the most legible American penmanship belongs to architects.

Their precisely rendered all caps suggest meticulousness, accountability, steadiness of character...

And almost anyone can achieve it, regardless of whether those are qualities they personally possess.

All it takes is determination, time, and—as taught by Doug Patt in his How to Architect series, above—more tools than can be simultaneously operated with two hands:

an Ames lettering guide

a parallel rule or t-square

a small plastic triangle customized with bits of tape

a .5mm Pentel drafting pencil

If this sounds needlessly laborious, keep in mind that such specialty equipment may appeal to reluctant hand writers with an interest in engineering, robotics, or scientific experimentation.

(Be prepared for some frustration if this is the student’s first time at the rodeo with these instruments. As any veteran comic book artist can attest, few are born knowing how to use an Ames lettering guide.)

It should be noted that Patt’s alphabet deviates a bit from traditional standards in the field.

His preference for breathing some life into his letters by not closing their loops, squashing traditionally circular forms into ellipses, and using “dynamic angles” to render crosspieces on a slant would likely not have passed muster with architecture professors of an earlier age, my second grade teacher, or the font designers responsible for the computer-generated “hand lettering” gracing the bulk of recent architectural renderings.

He's likely the only expert suggesting you make your Ks and Rs reminiscent of actor Ralph Macchio in the 1984 film, The Karate Kid.

There’s little chance you'll find yourself grooving to Patt’s videos for anything other than their intended purpose. Whereas the late Bob Ross’ Joy of Painting series has legions of fans who tune in solely for the meditative benefits they derive from his mellow demeanor, Patt’s rapid fire instructional style is that of the busy master, deftly executing moves the fledgling student can only but fumble through.

But if the Karate Kid taught us anything, it’s that practice and grit lead to excellence. If the above demonstration whips by too quickly, Patt expands on the shaping of each letter in 30-second video tutorials available as part of a $19 online course.

Those looking for architectural lower case, or techniques for controlling the thickness of their lines can find them in the episode devoted to lettering with a .7mm Pentel mechanical drafting pencil.

Explore further secrets of the architects on Patt’s How to Architect channel or 2012 book, also called How to Architect.

Related Content:

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Helen Keller Had Impeccable Handwriting: See a Collection of Her Childhood Letters

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

“The Couch to 80k” Writing Boot Camp: Take a Free 8-Week Podcast Course to Start Writing Fiction, or Even Finish a Novel

Image by Book Mama via Flickr Commons

We've all read fiction, but how to go about writing it? Nobody has the definitive answer, and there, in the multiplicity of possible approaches, methods, and frames of mind, lies both the challenge and the fascination of the craft. The English writer Tim Clare, who before reaching forty years of age has published poetry, a memoir, and a novel as well as hosted a television series called How to Get a Book Deal, seems to know that full well. Hence the variety of challenges he'll put you through in "The Couch to 80k" (80,000 words being the industry-standard length of a novel), his free eight-week fiction-writing "boot camp" available for anyone to take free online.

Produced as a part of Clare's writing-advice podcast Death of 1000 Cuts, the mini-series consists of 48 episodes, each of which, he says, "teaches you new writing skills through a 10 minute exercise – it even times you while you do the exercise, so once the podcast finishes, you’re done for the day. No homework!"




You need only "something to listen to them on, and a pen and notebook or a laptop, so you can write. The whole idea is to give you something low commitment but intense, packing in everything you’d learn on a Fiction MA and more, so every day you’re doing focused exercises that build upon your previous work and rapidly build your imaginative muscles."

Clare's jokey, conversational tone makes the course entertaining even if you don't actually want to write fiction, though Clare himself, in the very first episode (above), cautions strongly against listening unless you're ready to put pen to paper — and ready to consign everything you've written on that paper, through all eight weeks, straight to the recycle bin. Some of the challenges Clare throws down may seem silly, but they do get you writing, and he undergirds the series with forays into more technical matters like the "mathsy business of sentence composition" as well. Reviewing his novel Honours, the Guardian's Sarah Perry called Clare "a storyteller who knows what his reader wants, and isn’t shy of giving plenty of it." As this boot camp reveals, he's also a teacher who knows what his students need.

Enter the "The Couch to 80k" bootcamp here. And if you follow it through to completion, "you’ll have the knowledge and the motivation to finish a novel."

via Metafilter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

George Orwell Creates a List of the Four Essential Reasons Writers Write

Image by BBC, via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone should learn to write well, I used to tell students in Composition classes, and I believed it. To write well, in a certain sense, is to become a better thinker. But writing differs from writing, perhaps, in the same way that walking the dog differs from hiking the Appalachian trail. There are levels of difficulty. How badly do you need to say something that no one else can—or wants to—say? How badly do you need to push this thing you’ve said into the world?

These are separate questions. Some writers really do write for themselves, some write for money, though they might also write for free. Some write as a means to other ends, and some require, at all times, an audience. It may be a sexual compulsion or an animal reflex or the only way to get one’s mind right. Or some combination of the above. As a Jesuit scholar I once knew would say, “I’ve never met a motive that wasn’t mixed.” Given the difficulty of discerning why anyone does anything, there could be as many mixed motives as there are writers.




That said, I tend to think that every writer who reads George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” sees themselves in some part of his description of his early life. “I was somewhat lonely,” he tells us, “and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued.”

Maybe everyone has such feelings, but again it is a question of degree. Given Orwell’s keen understanding of the writer’s mind from the inside out, and his diligent pursuit of his work through the most trying times, we might be inclined to give him a hearing when he claims, “there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose.” Orwell allows that these motives will be mixed, existing “in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.”

But no one whom we might call a writer, Orwell suggests, writes solely for utility or money. The rewards are too peculiarly psychological, as are the pains. And the pleasures too otherworldly and practically useless. Orwell begins with one of those psychological compensations, fame, then proceeds to pleasure, then to duty to posterity and, finally, to persuasion; the four reasons, he says:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

Surely, someone will suggest others, but it may be that other reasons would still fall into these  categories. Neither are these motives consonant, “they must war with one another,” Orwell writes, and readers tend to egg the conflict on, declaring historical memoirs as products of pure egotism or turning their noses up at overly “political” novels.

Surprisingly, Orwell reveals that he might have done the same, had not circumstances forced his hand. “In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties,” he says. But who lives in a peaceful age? In any case, we might wonder if he is being completely honest. “What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.”

Orwell admits that his task “is not easy,” and he offers unsparing examples of times when his writing has moved too far toward one end of the spectrum on which he situates himself. What is instructive about his framework for understanding his motivations, however, is that he has the tools to self-correct. Such self-knowledge can serve anyone in good stead. For the writer, who is compelled to reveal themselves over and over, it may be essential.

You can purchase your copy of Orwell's "Why I Write" here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Read the Shortest Academic Article Ever Written: “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block'”

We've featured impressively short academic papers here on Open Culture before, like John Nash's 26-page PhD thesis and this two-sentence "Counterexample to Euler's Conjecture on Sums and Like Powers," but if you've set your sights on writing one shorter still, don't get your hopes up. The almost certainly unbeatable example of a short academic paper appeared more than forty years ago, in the fall 1974 issue of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analyses, its main text coming in at exactly zero words. You can read it, if indeed "read" is the word, above or at the National Center for Biotechnology Information.




Written, or at least thought up, by psychologist Dennis Upper, "The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of 'Writer's Block'" has nothing but its title, one footnote (indicating that "portions of this paper were not presented at the 81st annual American Psychological Association Convention"), and the fulsome comments of a reviewer: "I have studied this manuscript very carefully with lemon juice and X-rays and have not detected a single flaw in either design or writing style. I suggest it be published without revision. Clearly it is the most concise manuscript I have ever seen — yet it contains sufficient detail to allow other investigators to replicate Dr. Upper's failure. In comparison with the other manuscripts I get from you containing all that complicated detail, this one was a pleasure to examine."

Some describe writer's block, whether in science or literature or any other field requiring the proper arrangement of words, as a fear of the blank page. If looking at Upper's void-like paper frightens you, consider having a look at the Louisiana Channel series we featured in 2016 wherein writers like Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, and David Mitchell talk about how they deal with the blank page themselves. Atwood finds that it "beckons you in to write something on it," that "it must be filled,” but if you don't hear the same call, you'll have to come up with an approach of your own. Just don't try titling, footnoting, and turning in the empty sheet — it's been done.

Related Content:

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Supercut of Buster Keaton’s Most Amazing Stunts–and Keaton’s 5 Rules of Comic Storytelling

Joseph Frank Keaton was born into showbiz. His father was a comedian. His mother, a soubrette. He emerged into the world during a one night engagement in Kansas City. His father’s business partner, escape artist Harry Houdini, inadvertently renamed him Buster, approving of the way the rubbery little Keaton weathered an accidental tumble down a flight of stairs.

As Keaton recalls in the interview accompanying silent movie fan Don McHoull’s edit of some of his most amazing stunts, above:

My old man was an eccentric comic and as soon as I could take care of myself at all on my feet, he had slapped shoes on me and big baggy pants. And he'd just start doing gags with me and especially kickin' me clean across the stage or taking me by the back of the neck and throwing me. By the time I got up to around seven or eight years old, we were called The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage. 

By the time of his first film role in the 1917 Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle vehicle, The Butcher Boy, Keaton was a seasoned clown, with plenty of experience stringing physical gags into an entertaining narrative whole.




Like his silent peers, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, Keaton was an idea man, who saw no need for a script. Armed with a firm concept of how the film should begin and end, he rolled cameras without much idea of how the middle would turn out, fine tuning his physical set pieces on the fly, scrapping the ones that didn’t work and embracing the happy accidents.

Could such an approach work for today’s comedians? In later interviews, Keaton was generous toward other comedy professionals who got their laughs via methods he steered clear of, from Bob Hope’s wordiness to director Billy Wilder’s deft handling of Some Like It Hot’s farcical cross-dressing. His was never a one-size-fits-all philosophy.

Perhaps it's more helpful to think of his approach as an antidote to creative block and timidity. We’ve cobbled together some of his advice, below, in the hope that it might prove useful to storytellers of all stripes.

Buster Keaton’s 5 Rules of Comic Storytelling

Make a strong start - grab the audience with a dynamic, easy to grasp premise, like the one in 1920’s One Week, which finds a newlywed Buster struggling to assemble a house from a do-it-yourself kit.

Decide how you want things to finish up - for Keaton, this usually involved getting the girl, though he learned to keep a poker face after a preview audience booed the broad grin he tried out in one of Arbuckle’s shorts. Once you know where your story’s going, trust that the middle will take care of itself.

If it’s not working, cut it - Keaton may not have had a script, but he invested a lot of thought into the physical set pieces of his films. If it didn’t work as well as he hoped in execution, he cut it loose. If some serendipitous snafu turned out to be funnier than the intended gag, he put that in instead.

Play it like it matters to you. As many a beginning improv student finds out, if you let your own material crack you up, the audience is rarely inclined to laugh along. Why settle for low stakes and diffidence, when high stakes and commitment are so much funnier?

Action over words Whether dealing with dialogue or exposition, Keaton strove to minimize the intertitles in his silent work. Show, don’t tell.

Films excerpted at top:

Three Ages
Cops
Day Dreams
Sherlock Jr.
One Week
Hard Luck
Neighbors
The General
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Seven Chances
Our Hospitality
The Bell

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why Did Leonardo da Vinci Write Backwards? A Look Into the Ultimate Renaissance Man’s “Mirror Writing”

As the standout example of the "Renaissance Man" ideal, Leonardo da Vinci racked up no small number of accomplishments in his life. He also had his eccentricities, and tried his hand at a number of experiments that might look a bit odd even to his admirers today. In the case of one practice he eventually mastered and with which he stuck, he tried his hand in a more literal sense than usual: Leonardo, the evidence clearly shows, had a habit of writing backwards, starting at the right side of the page and moving to the left.

"Only when he was writing something intended for other people did he write in the normal direction," says the Museum of Science. Why did he write backwards? That remains one of the host of so far unanswerable questions about Leonardo's remarkable life, but "one idea is that it may have kept his hands clean. People who were contemporaries of Leonardo left records that they saw him write and paint left handed. He also made sketches showing his own left hand at work. As a lefty, this mirrored writing style would have prevented him from smudging his ink as he wrote."




Or Leonardo could have developed his "mirror writing" out of fear, a hypothesis acknowledged even by books for young readers: "Throughout his life, he was worried about the possibility of others stealing his ideas," writes Rachel A. Koestler-Grack in Leonardo Da Vinci: Artist, Inventor, and Renaissance Man"The observations in his notebooks were written in such a way that they could be read only by holding the books up to a mirror." The blog Walker's Chapters makes a representative counterargument: "Do you really think that a man as clever as Leonardo thought it was a good way to prevent people from reading his notes? This man, this genius, if he truly wanted to make his notes readable only to himself, he would’ve invented an entirely new language for this purpose. We’re talking about a dude who conceptualized parachutes even before helicopters were a thing."

Perhaps the most widely seen piece of Leonardo's mirror writing is his notes on Vitruvian Man (a piece of which appears at the top of the post), his enormously famous drawing that fits the proportions of the human body into the geometry of both a circle and a square (and whose elegant mathematics we featured last week). Many examples of mirror writing exist after Leonardo, from his countryman Matteo Zaccolini's 17th-century treatise on color to the 18th- and 19th-century calligraphy of the Ottoman Empire to the front of ambulances today. Each of those has its function, but one wonders whether as curious a mind as Leonardo's would want to write backwards simply for the joy of mastering and using a skill, any skill, however much it might baffle others — or indeed, because it might baffle them.

If you're interested in all things da Vinci, make sure you check out the new bestselling biography, Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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