Lesson No. 4: Critiquing Charles Bukowski


“If you want to be a writer, do it, don’t complain about it…”

Much of what Bukowski suggests in the above video is true. If you want to be a writer, do it, don’t complain about it, don’t wait for it, don’t question it, don’t think anyone owes you anything for it and if you continue to question whether you are a writer because you’ve not yet published in so and so, stop writing because you aren’t a writer, you are merely using writing as an excuse to become something else than what you already are.

Writing is not about the publishing. Writing isn’t about people knowing who you are. Writing is as much an addiction as any other. There is a compulsion to it. If you can do anything else and be happy, do it. Because writing will bring you little happiness. Writing is isolating and lonely. It must be. One cannot write, revise and complete a story, poem, novel without isolation. You might, some days, experience a single moment in a story or poem that is less shitty than the others. You will often be trudging through your own shit to find this less shitty moment and then you’ll spend days, months, years figuring out how to take this less shitty moment and make it good. You may one day have a book published or someone might give you an award and you’ll be questioning if you really deserved it. This will be five minutes of joy and then you will return to the shit. However much fun writing might appear to be at the start of a writing habit, it quickly shows its ugly, addictive reality. Writers are those who trudge through it, no matter the consequence. We do it because we have unfortunately realized that there is nothing else we do so well, and everything else will bore us to death. There is a manner of insanity to the habit. Writing is primarily learning how to live with rejection. The writer will continue to write though there is little hope that the end result will ever be different. This is the truth. Any writer who says differently is either putting on a front so you won’t see the painful truth or the writer is probably writing some formulaic crap and making money for it, not literature. Not art. Not writing. Regurgitating.


We Love Bukowski, and Love to Hate Bukowski, Yes, but We Must Also Understand His Craft Shortcomings for the Betterment of Our Own Narratives

The one place I and most writers diverge from Bukowski’s diatribe on becoming a writer is the issue of revision and waiting for inspiration to strike. Being a natural writer with talent and organic voice is necessary, yes, but sculpting this talent and voice is essential to well done storytelling. Buksowski got away with his haphazard craft for a few reasons. He cared little about contemporary structures or even finding his organic structure. He cared little about improving self and craft—i.e. his lifestyle, alcoholism, womanizing, etc. His manner was bullish in both his writing and personality, which gave him a good deal of confessional fodder, fed his art, sure, but his organic voice was cut more from an oral tradition of storytelling rather than narrative craft. Each time we read Bukowski’s stories, we can almost imagine sitting at a bar beside him as he spins some tale about a “bitch” and a bad night drinking. This is a particular form of storytelling that worked for Bukowski; however, Bukowski has done this. It’s been done and done and done. The best advice for a writer who likes Bukowski and is still learning his or her own voice and craft, which we all are, is to study Bukowski for his brutally honest narrative details, unflinching humor and masterful turns. But to adopt Bukowski’s “anti-revision” and “wait for something to strike” policies would be ill-advised. Learn from Bukowski’s successes and push past them for the betterment of your own craft.

Arguably, the most lacking attributes in Bukowski’s stories are the endings. In South of No North, the endings often trickle off, generally avoid cyclical closure and often leave the reader questioning if the resonance is really about something bigger than the ass-grinding the narrator just gave one of the characters. In fact, as we see in Bukowski’s poem, “Melancholia,” and his story “Loneliness” his poetry more than his prose offers the reader cyclical resonance and transcendence.  “In Melancholia,” the speaker returns to the beginning “me” and comes to some self-realization which offers transcendence and resonance. “Melancholia” is a shared state of being to which the reader can connect. In “Loneliness,” the narrator of the story ends on the protagonist deciding not to see the man again; however, we have no self-realization or effort to understand how her own choices put her in a bad state. Some critical readers might read this as Bukowski writing his misogynistic self “bitches are stupid.” But in studying other short stories, regardless of the protagonist’s gender, the protagonist rarely has or ends on a self-reflective moment. We will sometimes see self-realization throughout but it lacks a culminating and ending resonance on a fuller scale. Given Bukowski’s lack of craft philosophy, the substandard short story endings appear less about a lacking moral compass or gender sensitivity than about lack of revision and narrative sculpting. As we see in “Melancholia” Bukowski is capable of this sculpting in his poetry. Perhaps in writing poems, Bukowski was able to sculpt and revise more quickly, before the whiskey fully settled.

So why would Bukowski suggest to new writers that revision is unnecessary? Bukowski was an organically talented storyteller and egomaniac. If he could get away with not revising his short stories, because his small press editors allowed it, then perhaps in his mind, that’s the way all writers should write. I often wonder what his short stories might have been if he’d employed the same sculpting with them that he did with his poem, “Melancholia.”  Then again, one piece of advice one of my writing professors offered to all his students comes up here: “You can write drunk, but always edit sober.” Bukowski didn’t have many sober days, if any.


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.


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