So to my fellow Bukowski fans… here you go. An analysis of Charles Bukowski’s “So You Want to be a Writer?”
if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
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.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.
don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.
So I can’t be a writer?
In this poem, Charles Bukowski—unlike the many other great poets and writers written down in the pages of history and literature books—is discouraging struggling writers to write. Some may think that he uses the reverse psychology method in this poem, but knowing him would tell you that this is not a persuasive poem designed to attract aspiring writers into the world of poetry and literature. There is nothing more to it. Bukowski is not the president of the republic of mind games, and ambiguous poems with complex interpretations are not his thing. This is just the one-dimensional Bukowski relating his growth as a writer, how he kept the fire for writing burning in him, and how in the end the fire dies—either it dies with the writer or it dies first before he breathes his last.
Other than dejecting tortured artists, this poem also tells of the creative process that every writer has to undergo—of the hardships of blank pages and writers block and the myriad of torments before finally getting published.
If we try to deconstruct the poem line by line, Bukowski believes: (lines 1 to 7) that there is a book in every writer, screaming and banging the doors to the world, waiting for the writer to pry his soul open, then exposing every letter in the book that was in him.
A true writer to Bukowski does not spend hours contemplating on a blank space in front of him (lines 8 to 13), knitting words from thin air, because a writer need not ponder for too long since the flow of words for a writer is like a faucet that is turned on—brimming with all the letters all sewed up into words and sentences that not even the writer knows where they come from. However the faucet needs a driving force before it does the flowing, and writers sometimes spend so much time trying to reap something from their brains, when they could just take a stroll, go for a ride and get busy.
Saying “I have nothing to write about” is equivalent to a girl who says “I have nothing to wear” even when she’s got a closet-full of wardrobe. It’s right there in front of her and all she has to do is to pick out what looks good on her and pair it up with something else from the same closet. It’s right there!
For starters, it is best to erase all thoughts of having to write something. Keep a clean slate and go on with your life. An epiphany happens when you least expect it.
Writing for profit is not writing at all(lines 14 to 16) because a writer whose gaze is fixed at the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not driven by the burning enthusiasm to write, but with greed and worldly possessions and therefore, the passion to write is nonexistent in his piece. What is distressing with money as the driving force to write is how the expected outcome outruns creativity.
Many pop fiction writers, as they call it nowadays, write to please the reading teenage market because it’s the easiest way to get published and most of the themes of these novels are almost entirely similar (vampires, cancer, dying teenagers, amnesia, werewolves, etc.) One example is the resemblance of the Hunger Gamesand the Divergent trilogies—both have female protagonists who come from lower classes of dystopian nations where people are divided into districts (in Hunger Games) and factions (in Divergent). Another example is John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars which is about young love and cancer—themes that were also in the equally celebrated A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks (who, after all his moving love stories turned into films, ironically has just separated from his wife of 25 years). These stories are just patterns of other stories that gained so much popularity and raked in millions of money in the bag.
Lines 17 to 19 imply how many women fall for men who breathe poetry, especially in Shakespeare’s time (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?), when wonderfully concocted poems were used to woo women. Although oftentimes, women mistake a man’s sweet play of words for love—that is how men who are good with poetry lure women into their beds. But practically speaking, poems don’t pay the bills, unless of course you become published like Lang Leav and her partner Michael Faudet whose poetry and love the universe cannot fathom. Otherwise, if a struggling writer who basically writes for a living finds a girl and marries her but never gets published because he waited for his time for too long, soon enough she will leave him when he gets broke.
These lines also attest to Bukowski’s notorious brand as a womanizer. It is no secret that he has slept with dozens of women before he met his wives because his sexual accounts were written down in his semi-autobiographies and poems and Bukowski was daring enough to disclose in interviews that he was, no doubt, a womanizer.
Bukowski’s sexism is manifested in these lines. On the one hand, I think that Bukowski has gone so far as to treating women like sexual fetishes when I watched an interview of him with his wife Linda and then they started fighting and he eventually kicks her more than once even when the camera was still rolling. But to conclude that he was sexist may not be fair for the man because he did not just hate women, he hated people in general (including his parents).
Bukowski suggests that real writers do not modify their work once it’s done in lines 20 to 22 of the poem. This is contrary to Ernest Hemingway’s “Write drunk, edit sober.” Bukowski clearly doesn’t believe in the power of proofreading. He may have relied on editors to do the rewriting because it’s their job, otherwise what would they do if they do not edit? Writers write and editors edit. Bukowski was an embodiment of a realist-gone-so-far. But more often than not, some writers (if not all, except for Bukowski) see to it that they proof their pieces before it reaches the public eye— it’s either after finishing the piece or as they go along.
Perhaps to Bukowski, this is not how writing should take place because maybe for him, this is how one writer loses the natural feel of his piece. And the rawness of his artistry is evident in his novels which were sort of his autobiographical account, except for some details and characters that were added and altered. This was written in the most casual way—of a drunken postman narrating his tedious decades-long job in the American post office, spiced up with his sex life and alcoholism. The novel was teeming with unutterable cuss words, referring to a woman, who at that time was his partner as a ‘bit&%.’
Bukowski, the greatest American non-conformist poet and writer, apparently do not go by the rules set by celebrated icons in the field.
Writing to Bukowski is a burning passion, not an obligation or baggage that you are itching to rub off of your system, or hard work as Bukowski puts it in lines 23 to 24. It’s hard work if the writer is only driven by money or fame, but if it is ingrained in you and it comes as naturally as breathing, you wouldn’t have to sit and stare at your blank paper trying to think of something to write—like how you wouldn’t think of whether or not to breathe or how many breaths per second should you take.
In lines 25 to 27, Bukowski discourages mimicry. Sadly, some writers pattern their style and ideas from other published writers in the hopes of getting readers. To be original is the mantra of a good writer. But we cannot deny the fact that we are what we read. We become replicas of what we take in.
Because of the profusion of great writers who preceded us in this world and the many great literary treasures they left, we unconsciously copy their styles. However, to be original is to be you because everybody else is already taken and you are left with yourself to work on. Thank all the genius poets and writers whose masterpieces now lay covered in dust in your shelves and try as much as possible to stop chanting, “Spirit of Stephen King, come write me a story,” because that is not how it works.
Lines 28 to 32 explain how there are actually some writers who realize that they can be writers later than other writers who started writing at an early age. The late bloomers. These writers just woke up one morning and boom, epiphany! It’s equivalent to a boy who finds his calling and enters the seminary; a scientific discovery that’s worth a eureka!; or a cosmic phenomenon that only happens in a Saturn return.
The ‘roaring out’ of a man who discovers his passion for writing is a life-changing occurrence because like priesthood, being a writer is a vocation and a way of life. But to wait for it to ‘roar out of you,’ and not get anything for far too long, Bukowski says that it’s about time you do something else. Be a painter, a sculptor, a dentist, an engineer, a pastor, or a stage actor! Find your calling.
Some artists create art for various reasons. Some do it for therapeutic purposes, especially for the depressed ones. Art is their way of coping up and squeezing it all out before all their sentiments swell up in their guts; while others do it to express and share their rants to the world. Misery loves company. Nevertheless, there are those who just want to express themselves in writing either to again, make money or be somebody, but before they send it out for all the world to see and scrutinize, they seek for opinions from other people which in Bukowski’s poem (lines 33 to 36)states that a writer who’s not ready reads his piece first to the ones closest to him.
Unconsciously, we seek for their advice first because we know that although what we did was not as good as how we wanted it to sound, they will try as much as possible to sugarcoat their opinions because we are too naïve and amateur to tolerate criticisms from editors and critics. To be great is to go on writing despite rejections because these are but one of the many letdowns that one has to hurdle if he wishes to go on with it.
Being a writer is a self-proclaimed title. Unlike engineers, doctors, teachers, nurses and lawyers, writers are not licensed professionals and a writer is a general term for anybody who writes—be it an advertising agent, a scriptwriter for toothpaste commercials, a technical writer for how tos and directions and indications in packaging labels of medicines, and journalists. Journalism and creative writing stand in two opposite poles. Journalism is objective, creative writing is subjective. There is a really broad borderline between facts and feelings. Balancing the two and learning what pen to use on paper is a challenge for journalist-novelists and Hemingway was one of the few who survived it. Probably to Bukowski in lines 37 to 39, those who do not embody creativity, passion, talent and originality and those who fail the qualifications of a writer he wrote prior to lines 37 to 39 in the poem, are not writers at all.
He supported this with three more lines, 40 to 48, where he discourages hopeful writers to become boring and conceited. But how can one know if he stands somewhere near those lines? Not many writers and artists are aware of their characters—more so with their shadows. People understand themselves least of all and that is why the hardest thing for a painter to draw is a portrait of himself. In the case of writers, there are thousands of autobiographies where the author (who are the personas themselves) only narrates what they see through their eyes, but not what they see within. They may tell of their feelings, but it requires someone to be outside something to view it; and to be outside yourself is far too impossible (unless you astral project). In the same lines, Bukowski strongly affirms that there is a great number of pretentious writers—those who try as much to outrun other writers in terms of, say, a rich vocabulary bank like in the case of Shakespeare. In one of his interviews, Bukowski was quoted as saying:
“Shakespeare is unreadable and overrated. But people don’t want to hear that.
You see, you cannot attack shrines. Shakespeare is embedded through the centuries.
You can say ‘So-and-so is a lousy actor!’ but you can’t say Shakespeare is shit.
The longer something is around, snobs begin to attach themselves to it, like suckerfish.”
We cannot deny the fact that we patronize only those authors who have made it to history books and those that are awarded with so many recognitions because they wouldn’t be able to establish their name if they weren’t good enough. That is what book reviews at the back of paperbacks are created for (and the “from the author of”tags in novels and even films). They were made to let readers know how great the story is without having to read the whole of it because they are already familiar with the previously released books by the same author. It’s a counterpart of a trailer or a snippet. They are made to incite the readers. And once their works become part of the library of great literature, they become a force to reckon with, no matter how crappy their succeeding stories are. They now become shrines. In advertising, it’s called branding.
After providing his readers with a list of what to and what not to do, Bukowski, towards the end of the poem, gives the readers an insight of what it’s like in the world of writing—(49 to 50) of how it bursts out of one’s soul like a rocket, loud and burning with passion; (51 to 54) of how idleness becomes toxic and lethal for a writer. That is how artists are. Idleness drives them insane due to over-thinking and it drives them mad until they finally get an outlet where they can pour it all out through every pore in their skin. Later, Bukowski used the sun as a metaphor for the burning feeling a writer has when the ‘explosion’ within him happens (lines 55 to 57).
Finally, Bukowski ends with lines 58 to 64 with the personification of writing, saying how in time, it will pick someone and soon do it by itself, involuntarily, even without the writer’s will. But soon enough, its spirit shall either die its natural death as the writer dies in his death bed; or it just eventually wears out when the burning passion for writing and the person who was once a writer is left with nothing but the ghosts of his old writer self.
“There is no other way. And there never was.” Bukowski refers to the spirit of writing’s act of knocking in one’s door as the only way one ever becomes a writer. No writer or artist is forced to be one. Art chooses him and he chooses art. It is probably the only vocation that is not dictated by one’s parents or teachers. They may influence him as he grows, but to force him to be an artist when he’s not is impossible. Craft is innate and inevitable. Some develop it through time and practice, and each of us has his own divergent gift that runs through our bloodstream and the only way to find out… is to not try at all. Because soon enough, it will come roaring out of you. And by then, when you have unleashed the monster that was in you, you will be free to tame the wild beast and take control of it according to your will.