“Don’t Try”: Charles Bukowski’s Concise Philosophy of Art and Life

bukowski graveIn 1994, Charles Bukowski was buried in a Los Angeles cemetery, beneath a simple gravestone. The stone memorializes the poet’s name. It recites his dates of birth and death, but adds the symbol of a boxer between the two, suggesting his life was a struggle. And it adds the very succinct epitaph, “Don’t Try.”

There you have it, Bukowski’s philosophy on art and life boiled down to two words. But what do they mean? Let’s look back at the epistolary record and find out.

In October 1963, Bukowski recounted in a letter to John William Corrington how someone once asked him, “What do you do? How do you write, create?” To which, he replied: “You don’t try. That’s very important: ‘not’ to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.”

So, the key to life and art, it’s all about persistence? Patience? Timing? Waiting for your moment? Yes, but not just that.

Jumping forward to 1990, Bukowski sent a letter to his friend William Packard and reminded him: “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.”

The key to living a good life, to creating great art — it’s also about not over-thinking things, or muscling our way through. It’s about letting our talents appear, almost jedi-style. Or is it?

In 2005, Mike Watt (bass player for the Minutemen, fIREHOSE, and the Stooges) interviewed Linda Bukowski, the poet’s wife, and asked her to set the record straight. Here’s their exchange.

Watt: What’s the story: “Don’t Try”? Is it from that piece he wrote?

Linda: See those big volumes of books? They’re called Who’s Who In America. It’s everybody, artists, scientists, whatever. So he was in there and they asked him to do a little thing about the books he’s written and duh, duh, duh, duh, duh. At the very end they say, is there anything you wanna say, you know, what is your philosophy of life, and some people would write a huge long thing. A dissertation, and some people would just go on and on. And Hank just put, “Don’t Try.” Now, for you, what do you think that means?

Watt: Well for me it always meant like be natural.

Linda: Yeah, yeah.

Watt: Not like…being lazy!

Linda: Yeah, I get so many different ideas from people that don’t understand what that means. Well, “Don’t Try? Just be a slacker? lay back?” And I’m no! Don’t try, do. Because if you’re spending your time trying something, you’re not doing it…”DON’T TRY.”

It’s Monday. Get out there. Just do it. But patiently. And don’t break a sweat.

Related Content:

Charles Bukowski: Depression and Three Days in Bed Can Restore Your Creative Juices (NSFW)

Tom Waits Reads Charles Bukowski

The Last Faxed Poem of Charles Bukowski

Listen to Clips of Bukowski Reading His Poems in our Free Audio Books collection.

by | Permalink | Comments (28) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (28)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Christian says:

    Thanks for the laugh.

  • Candace Thompson says:

    I get it. “Almost Jedi-like…” Do or do not; there is no try.

  • Linda King says:

    I think he meant….don’t try to be better than me…because I’m the best. The gloves…he will knock you out ever time.

  • Stephen says:

    I think that he just meant ‘don’t be pretentious’.

  • saya civale says:

    I think he meant Don’t try, just do it.

  • Hal says:

    I think he meant …

  • Anarchy Joe says:

    Internet comments should be illegal.

  • mike says:

    I think he meant, ‘don’t try…do’

  • Matt says:

    What a bunch of hackneyed nonsense.

  • Matt says:

    What a bunch of hackneyed BS.

  • Gaziano Girling says:

    These answers are bullshit.

    He meant it.

    “Don’t try” means don’t engage them.

    You can’t fight a swarm of locusts.

    People suck.

    Don’t try.

    He meant it.

    All these other answers are bullshit from people who can’t write two consecutive compound sentences.

  • Alex says:

    In other words, be yourself and see what happens…

  • Mikeintexas says:

    Bukowski was always amazed at these writers who cannot write a simple sentence.they think writing long complex sentences is the way to impress people.anybody can make things difficult.the real skill comes from taking something complicated and making it simple.when he said dont try he was saying dont try to sound impressive.just tell it from the gut.

  • Verca. C. says:

    13 reasons why…

  • allison dun says:

    wow Hannah didnt lie

  • Justin says:

    No she didn’t, Hannah told the truth on everyone of those tapes. Poor Hannah. I so wish the story would have ended with Hannah and Clay going to see a zombie movie.

    Oh, and don’t bother reading the book. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but, the tv show is a much better than the book. Mr. Asher is know Charles Bukowski.

  • Syed Rehan says:

    Well! He actually means ..do not try to understand the meaning of “Don’t Try ” on tombstone :p

  • Peter berg says:

    If you sit down with an intention to create something you will without doubt fail.
    Just do without intention.

  • Kim says:

    I completely agree! I think Jay Asher had a great concept and I give him props for that but the show was so much more in depth to the aftermath of the tapes. I hate that some people were saying the show glorifies suicide because it is the focal point of the show and it gets explicit at the end (which how can being graphic with suicide make it seem okay?). In every way, the show shows why suicide is such a bad option and how much it impacts others after. Every episode feels so realistic to what goes on in high schools nowadays. The topics they cover are so important. I literally have watched it over 10 times all the way through because there are so many little details to catch.

  • Derek micah says:

    I knew I wasn’t the only one that would come here in regards to 13 Reasons Why…

  • Sxar says:

    Simple. But at the same time, very meaning full. I love this gravestone, along with may others. But This one brings a special grave[get it] into my mined. It goes along the lines; elegant, if you will. Its very… Thought out, but at the same time, last minute. The boxer in the middle that represented that life was tough, was VERY clever in my opinion. If It were me because I am a follower; would go along with “I told you I was sick” to make a person/family member laugh because my family always says that I bring a smile to there face. In condition, this was an amazing gravestone. I like to see the meaningfullness of this and thought out response from death.

  • Grizelda Gaitan says:

    I’d like to know if he ever wrote a box w/a cover of a, Boxer(dog) n his quote”dont try”

  • BILL FURMAN says:

    The Buk was a very funny man. THANKS CHINASKI!

  • mikemotorbike says:

    when you are authentic, you don’t have to try

  • August L says:

    I am of the opinion that C B(Charles Bukowski) wants us to bring out the best and the original element that is innate and embedded within us.
    In the process of which we cultivate patience and persistence in us to better our life’s conduct and approach.
    He challenges us young people to find our true potential and not be satisfied with the minimum. Raise the bar.
    Let’s do it.

  • Max says:

    He meant it. Search for his poem “Roll the dice”, where he says “if you’re going to try, go all the way”, see what he means with “go all the way”. Know that one out of millions succeed in that race, know that the particular one that actually make it, maybe made it out of luck. Know that the risk to lose everything is real.
    He knew that he was a great writer, he also knew that a lot of great writers remains unknown, and the difference between the one and the others more often then not is just pure luck.
    He just meant what he said: “Don’t try”.
    Thanks for everything, Charles.

  • Don says:

    Don’t try…to understand my epitaph :D

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.