“Don’t Try”: The Philosophy of the Hardworking Charles Bukowski

If Charles Bukows­ki were alive today, what would you ask him? Best to avoid the stan­dard ques­tions put to writ­ers about how or why they chose to become writ­ers — not just because Bukows­ki would sure­ly respond with a few col­or­ful­ly choice words of dis­missal, but because he embod­ied the lack of choice that char­ac­ter­izes the life of every seri­ous cre­ator. Accord­ing to the Pur­suit of Won­der video essay above, Bukows­ki dropped out of col­lege halfway through in order to write. After a peri­od spent “bounc­ing around the Unit­ed States, doing short-term blue-col­lar jobs while writ­ing hun­dred of short sto­ries,” none of which broke him into the lit­er­ary big time, came a high­ly unpro­duc­tive peri­od of blue-col­lar jobs with­out the accom­pa­ny­ing writ­ing.

At the end of a writ­ing-free decade, Bukows­ki “near­ly died from a seri­ous bleed­ing ulcer.” This got him back on track, as brush­es with mor­tal­i­ty tend to do: he sub­se­quent­ly quit his job at the post office and returned to writ­ing full-time. It was only a few years before he went back to work at the post office, but this time he kept writ­ing, putting in the real work at the type­writer before each shift at the day job. He did so with­out the prospect of suc­cess any­where in the off­ing, at least not before he reached mid­dle age. “It took Bukows­ki years and years of writ­ing and toil­ing and try­ing to final­ly have cir­cum­stances work out in his favor so he could gain trac­tion and find suc­cess as a writer,” says the video’s nar­ra­tor. And yet, as we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly not­ed here at Open Cul­ture, into Bukowski’s grave­stone are chis­eled these words: “Don’t try.”

“How could a man who became suc­cess­ful in ful­fill­ing his idea of him­self — a man who, although it took a while, found immense respect and recog­ni­tion for his craft, all because of his relent­less try­ing — how could this man leave the words don’t try as his final offer­ing?” We might inter­pret them in light of a let­ter from Bukows­ki to a friend, the writer and pub­lish­er William Packard. “Too many writ­ers write for the wrong rea­sons,” declared Bukows­ki. “They want to get famous or they want to get rich or they want to get laid by the girls with the blue­bells in their hair… When every­thing goes best, it’s not because you chose writ­ing, but because writ­ing chose you.” Bukows­ki did­n’t decide to be a writer; nobody actu­al­ly ded­i­cat­ed to a pur­suit ever had to decide which pur­suit it would be.

“We work too hard. We try too hard,” Bukows­ki writes to Packard. “Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. Look­ing right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb.” He may have meant, as the video’s nar­ra­tor puts it, that “if you have to try to try, if you have to try to care about some­thing or have to try to want some­thing, per­haps you don’t care about it, and per­haps you don’t want it.” And “if the thought of not doing the thing hurts more than the thought of poten­tial­ly suf­fer­ing through the process, if the thought of a life with­out it or nev­er hav­ing tried it at all ter­ri­fies you, if it comes to you, through you, out of you, almost as if you’re not try­ing, per­haps Bukows­ki might say here, try, and ‘if you’re going to try, go all the way.’ ” That quote comes from Bukowski’s nov­el Fac­to­tum — the sto­ry of a writer in search of blue-col­lar work that won’t get in the way of his one true craft — and we might do well to take it one sen­tence fur­ther: “Oth­er­wise, don’t even start.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

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

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

Charles Bukows­ki Explains How to Beat Depres­sion: Spend 3–4 Days in Bed and You’ll Get the Juices Flow­ing Again (NSFW)

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, 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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  • mr. D. B. Del Torre says:

    I knew Hank. Brought him to Van­cou­ver Octo­ber 1979. Record­ed the read­ing as “There’s gonna be a God Damn Riot in Here.” Now it forms half of “One Tough Moth­er” a dou­ble DVD with “The Last Straw.” Straw was his last read­ing in LA in Redon­do Beach on March 31,1980. Mine was his sec­ond last. I actu­al­ly spent a week at his home where were invit­ed to attend the Redon­do read­ing…
    I know all this stuff you are going on about. Very nice. Very true. But slow down. There’s no rush. Feels like you were on speed or in a hur­ry to get to your next event or top­ic.

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