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.”
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.