“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 (29) |

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 (29)
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

  • Tani says:

    Don’t try res­onates with his most promi­nent poem “The laugh­ing heart”, where he put it: “God will offer you chances…know them, take them.…” There­fore, that would imply that there’s no need to con­sume our­selves chas­ing our des­tinies, don’t try, wait and receive what is com­ing your way…what is meant for you…

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.