Lesson No. 2: Writing Melancholia with Charles Bukowski



by Charles Bukowski

the history of melancholia 
includes all of us. 
me, I writhe in dirty sheets 
while staring at blue walls 
and nothing. 
I have gotten so used to melancholia 
I greet it like an old 
I will now do 15 minutes of grieving 
for the lost redhead, 
I tell the gods. 
I do it and feel quite bad 
quite sad, 
then I rise 
even though nothing 
is solved. 
that’s what I get for kicking 
religion in the ass. 
I should have kicked the redhead 
in the ass
where her brains and her bread and 
butter are 
but, no, I’ve felt sad 
about everything: 
the lost redhead was just another 
smash in a lifelong 
I listen to drums on the radio now 
and grin. 
there is something wrong with me 

Melancholia is a motif in Charles Bukowski’s prose and poetry. It is arguably what drives his art. It is sad, articulate, dichotic and what many readers and critics associate to the artist’s state of being. Perhaps, it is an inevitable conclusion to isolation, the single most important necessity to the artist’s and writer’s craft.

Notice how the speaker in this poem turns from the “redhead” to the state of “religion” to “me.” There is narrative arc present in these poetic “turns,” ending in a final self-awareness: “there is something wrong with me/besides/melancholia.” What begins as a self-centered and angry diatribe on external conflicts with misogynist attributes, cycles back to an ending of self-realization and emotional honesty. The turn is powerful and connective for readers regardless of personal station or belief. Any smart and honest adult reader can connect to the condition of melancholia, dissociation, questioning of faith, failed romantic investment, anger, attempts toward distraction and then a coming to terms with self. Let’s take a look at these poetic turns as narrative arc:




Melonchalia on Freytag’s Pyramid

Exposition: “the history of melancholia/includes all of us./me, I writhe in dirty sheets/while staring at blue walls/and nothing./I have gotten so used to melancholia/that/I greet it like an old/friend.” 

Inciting Event: “I will now do 15 minutes of grieving/for the lost redhead,”

Rising Action: I tell the gods./I do it and feel quite bad/quite sad,/then I rise/CLEANSED/ even though nothing/ is solved./that’s what I get for kicking/religion in the ass./I should have kicked the redhead/in the ass/where her brains and her bread and/butter are/at…”

Climax: “but, no, I’ve felt sad/about everything:”

Falling Action: “the lost redhead was just another/smash in a lifelong/loss…/I listen to drums on the radio now/and grin.”

Resolution: “there is something wrong with me/besides/melancholia.”

Denouement: Unstated. The reader is left to resonate on this meaning of “something wrong with me,” the true origin of the melancholia.

Consider this arc while watching the below film, Melancholia.


Melancholia (2011) Directed by Lars von Trier 

The film premiered at Cannes and won Emily Dunst a best actress award. It is not critically associated to Bukowski’s poem, though, thematically, the two works are an interesting study. This film focuses on two sisters and gives another take on melancholia, life, inevitable death…. These two works, Bukowski’s poem and von Trier’s film, create an excellent immersion exploration as you consider your own take on melancholia.



“Melancholia” by Charles Bukowski (above)

Continue reading (if you’ve not already finished):



This week, write a short short story (1000 words or less), poem or prose poem (if you are comfortable with poetry or prose poetry) focusing on the condition of melancholia. Use Bukowski’s and von Trier’s framework as inspiration.

  • Melancholia as familiar and comforting
  • Failed romantic interest
  • Anger
  • Loss of faith
  • Attempts at distraction
  • Self-realization and acceptance

As you consider this melancholia framework, make it personal. Allow your own adult journeys through the stagnantly familiar and safe, failure, anger, loss, distraction, self-realization and acceptance to inform your narrative. Remember, this journey is familiar to us all. It is what connects us. It is what will connect your readers to your narrative. Also remember, this is 1000 words or less. Choose a moment, a single scene. Keep the focus narrow in characters and landscape. This moment need not be “big” or “actionable.” It can be dramatically mundane. Above all, be emotionally honest.


Rae Bryant, FacultyRae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her stories and essays have appeared in print and online at  The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine,and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. Rae is the director of The Eckleburg Workshops. Rae is a member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, AWP, NBCC, CLMP and Johns Hopkins Alumni Association. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.


Submit for Individualized Feedback

[displayProduct id=”52512″]