Charles Bukowski Explains What Good Writing and the Good Life Have in Common

I have no pol­i­tics, I observe. I have no sides except the side of the human spir­it, which after all does sound rather shal­low, like a pitch­man, but which means most­ly my spir­it, which means yours too, for if I am not tru­ly alive, how can I see you?

—Charles Bukows­ki, Notes of. Dirty Old Man

In Notes of a Dirty Old Man, his week­ly col­umn for the under­ground L.A. news­pa­per Open City, Charles Bukows­ki became the com­mon man’s philoso­pher, issu­ing pro­fun­di­ties amidst wild vul­gar­i­ties and prov­ing that he did, in fact, have a pol­i­tics, as much as he had the­o­ries and con­trar­i­an half-thoughts and opin­ions aplen­ty. He took sides when it came to lit­er­a­ture, at least—the side of Celine, Dos­to­evsky, and Camus, for exam­ple, against Faulkn­er, Shake­speare, and George Bernard Shaw (“the most overblown fan­ta­sy of the Ages”).

Bukows­ki had no room for cool appre­ci­a­tion or mild pref­er­ence. With him, as with Cat­ul­lus, life was love and hate. Get him talk­ing on any sub­ject and those loves and hates would emerge, as would his ideas about mat­ters of most con­se­quence: life, death, drink­ing, sex, and, of course, writ­ing. In the inter­view clip above, for exam­ple, Bukows­ki is asked if he fears death. He answers, “No, in fact, I almost feel good at the approach of death.” This becomes a med­i­ta­tion on rep­e­ti­tion and dull­ness, and on the “juice” that a good life—and good writing—requires.

…. You see, as you live many years, things take on a repeat…. You under­stand? You keep see­ing the same thing over and over again… so you get a lit­tle bit tired of life. So as death comes, you almost say, okay, baby, it’s time, it’s good.

The answer puts the inter­view­er in mind of Mal­colm Lowry’s Under the Vol­cano, which sends Bukows­ki on one of his sig­na­ture cranky cri­tiques, also an intro­duc­tion to his the­o­ry of prose, which can be summed up in just three syl­la­bles, “BIM BIM BIM!”—the sound he makes to show the “quick­ness” of a well-writ­ten line. Good writ­ing needs “pace,” “life,” and “sun­light.” “Each line,” he says, “must be full of a deli­cious lit­tle juice, they must be full of pow­er, they must make you like to turn a page, bim bim bim!” Writ­ing like Lowry’s, he says, is “too leisure­ly.” There’s too much set­up, too lit­tle pay­off.

He may seem unfair to Lowry, but most writ­ers bore Bukows­ki. After pages of tedious buildup, “when they get to the grand emo­tion, there isn’t any,” he says. Bukows­ki has nev­er been one for sub­tle­ty, but no one can say his writ­ing lacks  “juice” or grand emo­tion. On the con­trary, he endears him­self to so many aspir­ing writ­ers (or aspir­ing male writ­ers, in any case) because his poet­ry and prose are so elec­tri­fy­ing­ly alive. He had a lim­it­ed range of sub­jects, most­ly con­fined to his own thoughts, feel­ings, and drunk­en mis­ad­ven­tures. Yet the voice that car­ries us through his vio­lent­ly fun­ny tales and rever­ies, wicked and maudlin and ten­der by turns, seems capa­ble of lim­it­less inven­tion.

“Writ­ing must nev­er be bor­ing,” says Bukows­ki. He set a high bar, and he met it. As writ­ers, we need not live his life to do the same. But we must each be “tru­ly alive” in our own way to make our lines go bim bim bim. “Each line,” he says, “must be an enti­ty unto itself.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Charles Bukows­ki Reads His Poem “The Secret of My Endurance” 

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

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