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So You Want to Be a Writer? Don't Try. Exploring Bukowski's Immortal Philosophy

03.23.13 @ 10:00AM Tags : , ,

The poet and novelist Charles Bukowski was buried in Los Angeles in 1994 with the simple words “Don’t Try” adorning his headstone. It always struck me as a beautiful way to explain art, life and the quest for creativity. Don’t try? This seemingly flippant philosophy might be easily marginalized, but is there something more profound to Bukowski’s immortalizing words? What did he really mean by this? Digging through his letters, it becomes more clear, and it’s punctuated nicely by this poem posthumously released in 2003, So You Want to Be a Writer?:

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.

The same could be said about filmmaking. Why do we make films? For money, for fame, for acceptance? Do we have too many people in the game for the wrong reasons? I think it’s easy to get it stuck in our minds that we create in order to gain something, to try to get somewhere, to get to some “next level.” I’ve been guilty of this, and it never feels quite right, and it’s when I find Bukowski’s words coming back to me. I find more and more that my best work happens when it comes effortlessly. I feel closest to those filmmakers who are able to travel as freely as possible from their original ideas to their medium.

if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.

What then, is Bukowski saying here? “You either have it, or you don’t?” Perhaps he’s warning us of over thinking, forcing ourselves through, reminding us that it’s all there in front of us — we merely have to wait for it, to accept it; to harness it. It’s like Tarkovsky said, cinema uses your life, not vice-versa.

In a letter written in 1963, Bukowski replied to someone who once asked him, “What do you do? How do you write, create?”:

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.

The creative process is often a matter of capturing lightning in a bottle. Sometimes you never find what you’re looking for until you stop looking — and then it finds you. This ‘waiting’ that Bukowski speaks of, perhaps that then is the hard work — the hours spent hunched over the typewriter, the restless nights; one must be vigilant, one must be a harbinger of creativity to access it.

Moving ahead to 1990, Bukowski sent a letter to his friend William Packard to remind 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.

And lastly, Linda Bukowski (his wife) has another take on ‘Don’t Try’, from a 2005 interview:

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 say no! Don’t try, do. Because if you’re spending your time trying something, you’re not doing it…

Last words of a famous grump, or sage advice? What do you think about Bukowski’s philosophy?

Link: Charles Bukowski


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  • Juan Jimenez on 03.23.13 @ 11:48AM

    Bukowski was a media created sensation who was actually a total drunk who lived his life at the lowest depths of society.

    “Don’t Try” is a perfect inscription on his tombstone as someone who spent his life intoxicated.

    It should be taken literally as a testament to his low-life existence.

    • Read Post Office by Bukowski. It’s fantastic.

    • I don’t think Bukowski himself would have disagreed, though I think you may be grossly undervaluing his artistic contributions. But love his art or hate it, it’s just vanity asking for an artist’s personal life to conform to your standards and regulations for living.

    • henry chinski on 03.23.13 @ 1:44PM


      but this is not to say he was not brilliant. HAHA best response yet!

  • The guy was by all measures one of the most beautifully capable geniuses of the written word. Not a week goes by that I am not revisiting one of his books of poetry and recconecting with what it is to be human on a profoundly deep, yet accessible level. Thanks for the topic!

    Here’s an exceprt from a documentary on Bukowski called, Born Into This, which I highly recommend.

    And finally the poem I have hand typed and posted on my bathroom wall so not a day will go by that I won’t see it:

    WEDNESDAY, MARCH 18, 2009

    Nobody But You
    by Charles Bukowski

    nobody can save you but
    you will be put again and again
    into nearly impossible
    they will attempt again and again
    through subterfuge, guise and
    to make you submit, quit and /or die quietly

    nobody can save you but
    and it will be easy enough to fail
    so very easily
    but don’t, don’t, don’t.
    just watch them.
    listen to them.
    do you want to be like that?
    a faceless, mindless, heartless
    do you want to experience
    death before death?

    nobody can save you but
    and you’re worth saving.
    it’s a war not easily won
    but if anything is worth winning then
    this is it.

    think about it.
    think about saving your self.
    your spiritual self.
    your gut self.
    your singing magical self and
    your beautiful self.
    save it.
    don’t join the dead-in-spirit.

    maintain your self
    with humor and grace
    and finally
    if necessary
    wager your self as you struggle,
    damn the odds, damn
    the price.

    only you can save your

    do it! do it!

    then you’ll know exactly what
    I am talking about.

  • Thanks for sharing that, it’s great. This is also worth a listen for anyone interested in hearing Bukowski’s words over a bit of music:

  • henry chinski on 03.23.13 @ 1:41PM

    bukowski is saying f&*K you. He is being sarcastic and Ironic. He is making fun of you and himself for trying….saying the world is not worth it…..what is the point…..the purpose? is there one… cant see it so…. probably not….DONT TRY.

    This is not to say he is not brilliant and full of wisdom and there is a lot of wisdom in those words “Dont Try” ….but “go with the flow” and “dont over think it” is a much to simplistic way to look at it.

    you say” Last words of a famous grump, or sage advice? What do you think about Bukowski’s philosophy?”

    Bukowski is not a “famous grump” its fun to look at it like this…..its cute….but the man was a clinical depressive, a manic, a serious alcoholic ….and its important to take that perspective into consideration if your trying to get at why he was “trying to say”. Its also important to consider that the man slaved over words….he tried VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY hard….every f%$king day. Then he drank himself to death.

    thinks arn’t simple. Chinski was the greatest.

    • I agree and hope I didn’t oversimplify it too much, I’m just happy to keep the discussion going, and maybe bring it to some people who haven’t thought about it. He’s a personal hero of mine and though I’m not planning on drinking myself to death, I think about his words almost every day. Cheers

      • henry chinski on 03.23.13 @ 2:18PM

        you did, but hey you gotta do what you gotta do. 250k people will see spring breakers tonight….i dont know if anyone Chineske here included will understand in full Korine’s depth. People cant handle shit without answers.
        In the final scene of “dont look back” dylan is in the car with his manager he says “there calling you an anarchist” …..”HAHA”… which the manager replies “its because you dont give any solution” ….”Give the Anarchist a cigarette!” dylan replies.

  • Nice food for thought. On the otherhand, pre-visualing can be great. 1. When I’m in the zone I pre-visualize where my tennis serve is going to go and when I nail it, it’s partly luck but it’s also the hampers full of tennis balls I hit the many days before — practicing the serve so it will seem effortless. 2. When I’m in the zone performing jazz music, I can sometimes “hear” the next chorus I will improvise as if it was pre-composed, but it has taken decades of practicing scales, arpeggios and playing through substitutions and reharmonizations to find that zone. 3. The beauty of DSLRs is I can go out and shoot very cheaply with no crew and shoot away for practice so when the time comes on set when it counts, I’ve got some fluency of some sort, and can feel which focal lengths, aperture, ISO, filters and camera moves will help make the sequence flow for the editor and director . Most writers need to write alot to get good or find out if they can be good and can’t afford to wait ofr the FLOW to happen.

    • Took a creative concept course once from a writer who had done Nike ads for W&K and GS&P (and also a caveman Superbowl spot for Fedex among others). One of his best tips was “look for incongruence” in coming up with ways of expressing ideas. The “don’t do it advice” seems to fit the incongruence…

  • Interesting discussion, but Im with Chinski.

    All of my best writing came from pain staking effort and trying very hard. ‘Wait patiently for it to flow out’ is the opposite of my philosophy (and most working authors of stage, page and screen.)

    Stephen King (I can feel the eye rolling now) is no Bukowski, that much is certain, but his approach to writing (with the exception of ‘not outlining’) is what helped me more. I simply don’t subscribe to the ‘romantic
    And self loathing artist’ model.

    • henry chinski on 03.24.13 @ 11:24AM

      King was an alcoholic for many a year you know…all sad in a trailer park and shit…i mean he got over it and is rich now and writes a book an hour but…….you dont subscribe to things…..things often just are …..the greats often choose the page or the films or the whatever it is over having a sane life…and what im saying is sometimes its not even a choice its just a necessity or it just happens that way because thats what feels right.

      everybody at times goes away to let it flow and try to distract themselves…..its why bukowski is always at the track or belligerent at some party….but you still gotta try hard….there is nothing made good without trying very hard somehow on some level even if it doesn’t appear that way.

      • You don’t say?… ;) Indeed he was, but he was not in a trailer park, I assure you. He was well established and quite wealthy when he hit the bottle (and the cocaine, and the prescription pills, etc…). Why did the most prolific writer of popular fiction in recent memory get into all of these things? Tortured artist? No. Romantic? No. In his own words, he simply needed the fuel.

        I’m not one to argue any one way of creating something. It seems the best way is the way that produces results. I find the most successful artists (in any medium) are often the most prolific and/or the hardest working. Alfred Hitchcock. Stephen King. Pablo Picasso. The Beatles. Etc etc etc. Their body of work is insane. Sure, there are exceptions to this, as there always is, but I don’t think the struggling writers out there always see it that way. It’s almost as if you have to have a certain “Hank Moody” quality about you to be considered legit… and, well, that’s just a buncha’ shit.

        A quick anecdote…
        An ex-gf of mine (now a popular actress on prime time) went to film school with a fellow actor that was the embodiment of ‘tortured artist’. He drank. He smoked. He did every drug under the son. By God he had ‘it’ in him and he even looked like Johnny Depp doing it. And what came of it? ALL of the attention – ALL of the opportunities – EVERYONE felt he was an artist because he ‘acted’ the part. My ex, on the other hand, was Ms. Responsibility. You know, the type that actually did their homework before supper as to have the evenings off (only to study more). She put her ‘time in’, as they say. She was told she was ‘good’ but not ‘great’ (as he was). She had hard work but not ‘it’. She didn’t get all of the attention, opportunities or recognition as a serious actress. Fast forward to present day; she’s a success and developing into quite the actor and he’s… well, last we all heard he was spewing the same old tortured artist tune, unemployed and taking selfies in his loft that his wealthy parents bought him.

        I suppose my point is there is no right way. But evidence has pointed that ‘actually trying’ may get you further than the self-destructive artist fallacy. If living under a bridge and nursing an addiction makes you do your work – well, all the power to you. Oh, and Stephen King was a multimillionaire when he became an alcoholic – that was also my point.

        You can imagine how frustrated it makes a person like me when Harmony Korine and other ‘fringe entities’ in the filmmaking world grab headlines and are touted as artistes. All kinds, I suppose.

        • Art is dependent on choice and intention, oftentimes disregarding practical purpose for the sake of that intention, wherever it manifests itself from. That is a definition. Korine is an artist, Da Vinci was an artist, my little cousin is an artist and that kid doesn’t know what a “left” is.
          People try to be tortured artists in order to try and be interesting in an increasingly uninteresting world that tries its hardest to demystify damn near everything. I dislike people who “play the role” but I can understand what their trying to do. It seems a little misguided in my eyes, however, if that’s not the way these people are when they’re alone.
          Buk did say that the only difference between being a success and being a crazy was money. That’s not the actual quote.

          • They’re*

          • Agreed. Like I said, no right or wrong way. Can’t really agree with the world being increasingly uninteresting thought- quite the opposite in my own opinion, but I can see what you’re getting at.

            As for the word artist – and I’ll be the first to say I have my own strong prejudices on the term – I think it’s been hijacked by a horde of wannabe’s and subpar ‘creators’ of all mediums. Didn’t ‘get’ my film? IM AN ARTIST. Consumed by personal vices? IM AN ARTIST. Misunderstood/antisocial/depressed/etcetcetc? IM AN ARTIST. It’s the fallback term that saves the ego from facing a potential truth… that you’re not as good as you think you are… yet. AND of course, that’s not to say all of the above is not applicable to someone that makes quality work and may, in fact, be of ‘artist calibre.’ Such a fast and loose term that’s diluted to the point of… of something diluted, I’m too tired to come up with a clever analogy.

        • Yeah the worst thing to happen to art is that it became relative, but it has to be the truth otherwise it’s elitist.

          Maybe there’s something else out there. When you had to buy the camera and develop the film and cut it by hand it took determination and thought and most importantly skill just to record it, same with analog recording in music. Now that you can borrow your buddy’s 5D and card reader or pirate pro tools everyone is a filmmaker or a DJ. Maybe we’re in a time of transcendence. Maybe a new standard is coming.

          Jack White said you should watch out for accessibility because it kills the struggle to be creative.

          • Well said! Truth is most definitely the defining factor of all great art.

            Jack White definitely has a point, but for the sake of conversation I’ll throw out David Lynch – in the film Side By Side – and how he offered an interesting perspective on the availability of proper tools.

            Paraphrasing: “How long has the pencil been around? And how many masterpieces have been written?” I suppose a new standard can be around the bend. Or maybe – now that ‘all the pieces’ are available to the artist – the content will reign king. Ideally the herd will thin and no longer does ‘a pretty picture’ cut it. Now it’s a pretty picture with the best stories. A man can dream I suppose.

          • Good point!

  • Asim Chitrakar on 03.25.13 @ 3:39AM

    by saying ‘don’t try’ – i don’t think Bukowski is saying to stop or quit writing.In psychology there is process of mind trying to learn something which is called ‘ insight learning’ . where you try and try and you are tired and you give up and suddenly a miraculous idea pops in your head. It actually had happened to me while writing for my college project. so all you have to do is try and try untill you are exhausted then leave it, forget about it then, the ‘thing’ might come to you by itself. so i suppose Bukowski was in that state of mind where he don’t have to try anymore. saturated and ready to pour.

  • A lot of times my most apathetic attempt at a project ends up being the most cohesive, and therefore makes me the most money – which is nice.

  • If I may add one more piece of insight to this article, I think a lot of people are taking the words here from Bukowski to be a vicious rant from a bitter alcoholic. I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. For as many scathing pieces as Bukowski wrote, he also wrote an equal amount of encouraging, loving pieces. Whether that be about the act of writing, a woman, or life in general, his writings covered every angle and emotion, which is exactly what I want a poet, and a filmmaker to consider when making a piece.

    I believe the piece above is being taken to literal by some people. The point here isn’t to give in and quit, but I think he’s addressing a problem writers and filmmakers alike have to deal with, people making less than passionate work.

    There are so many people now who are in love with the idea of filmmaking, who want to be directors, or camera ops, or actors/actresses, but who aren’t bursting at the seams to get an idea out. Instead they simply want to look the part and be respected and adored for doing it. This just ends up in tons and tons or tired, statement-less art. Technically proficient, maybe, but the passion and ideas are lacking.

    Bukowski knows someone who is dying to make something beautiful of their own isn’t going to read his statements here and drop everything and give up. This isn’t a call for discouragement, but instead a call that you look inside and make sure you are truly passionate about what it is you are trying to create. If you are, no old poet is going to stop you.

    I think you have to be assured in your own creative intents to read this and not take it as threatening. While he’s talking about writing, I think this applies completely to the filmmaking world. The democratization of filmmaking has opened the doors for virtually anyone to have access to enough resources to make a film. However it’s also created a disproportionate ratio of quality material to meandering junk. It’s the same on the opposite end of the spectrum with big budget pictures that are made by test studying audiences and making bland, formulaic works that will appeal to the maximum amount of people without offending anyone.

    Basically, don’t write, make films, paint, make music unless you can’t help but do these things because they are a part of your being. I think most anyone in this conversation knows what that’s about or you wouldn’t be on this website.

  • Writers – REAL writers – would intuitively understand what he was saying. They would also understand the drinking and depression.

    Taoists would “know” it without analyzing it.

    It is only those who OVER-analyze, rationalize, cogitate, deduce and TRY that will NEVER get it.

  • Writing find its self by writing.

  • “shortlived seed of of a toilsome spirit and of a hard fate, why do you force me to say what is better for you not to know? The most painless life is that lived in ignorance of ones own ills”