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