Monday, 2 November 2015

I've been reading lately...

 On Writing by Charles Bukowski

The only previous work I’d read of Charles Bukowski was his famed novel, Post Office, and when borrowing it the librarian said it was the most frequently stolen book in their catalogue. After getting to know Bukowski, it’s easy to see why.

He incites mayhem.

Bukowski was a writer. Of poems, short stories and novels. “If you chopped off my hands, I’d type with my feet” he says. 

On Writing is a collection of his letters to friends, editors and other writers from early in his life in 1945 until just before his death in 1994. The letters selected are those in which he talks of his writing career, his method and inspiration for writing, or shares his opinion on other writers. The book is a glimpse in to the life of an alcoholic living in poverty, as he develops into an alcoholic living in notoriety achieved through his outrageous writing.

He wrote through the years, he says, “not because I was so good but because they [all other writers] were so bad, including Shakespeare.”

In his letters he conjures images of magic and mischief to cut to pieces the madness he saw everywhere, and writes with ragged warmth of the many nameless women walking in and out of his door, his love of the racetrack, his love of drinking, and most of all his love of - his dependence on - writing.

“Sometimes I’ve called writing a disease. If so, I’m glad that it caught me. I’ve never walked into this room and looked at this typewriter without feeling that something, somewhere, some strange gods or something utterly unnameable has touched me with a blithering, blathering luck that holds and holds and holds. Oh yes.”

 Bukowski hated the pretense he saw in other writers, saying he could learn more about life from talking to garbage collectors and hobos than from hanging in the hip writers' circles.

“I do not believe in techniques or schools or sissies. I believe in grasping at the curtains like a drunken monk and tearing them down, down, down...”

He thought there were too many bad writers, and most of them had lived no sort of life at all. Writing of a critic who had given him a bad review, Bukowski says:

“Don’t think he ever missed a meal or broke a leg or got pissed on by a whore or ever slept on a park bench and so forth. Not that these things are necessary, they happen, but when they do you tend to think a bit differently.”

For me, he gets away with his bombast because, like a crazy uncle, he's damn funny.

"Say you call a plumber nowadays. He'll come over with his pipe wrench in one hand, his plunger in the other and a small chapbook of his selected madrigals in one of his asshole pockets. Even see a kangaroo in the zoo, he'll eye you and then pull a sheath of pomes from his pouch, typewritten, single-spaced on waterproof 8 and one half by eleven." 

I loved this book for two reasons. Firstly, it was inspiring to read of a man who believed down to his bones in what he was doing.  Me, I'm always hedging my bets, giving something a go and then quitting if it doesn't work out. Bukowski submitted work for year after poverty-stricken year to tiny literary journals because he knew it was his life's work, and this inspires me to give myself more fully to the paths my life is taking. It had me asking what cause have I ever really sweated over?

Secondly, the man writes like there's a malicious demon perched snickering on his shoulder. The letters are strewn with phrases sharp and cutting as slivered glass. The book has a swing and a rhythm that had this middle class, white-boy primary school teacher walking with a swagger and thinking of stealing a sack of library books.

In a word or two: Outrageous

Image 1 from:
Image 2 from:


  1. I'm going to enjoy this blog - I suspect you're going to get me out of my comfort zone Steve! He sounds so interesting - and I love that image at the end so much I want a poster version!

  2. It's a great picture isn't it? The link I've got right at the bottom is actually to a place selling it as a poster I think! If you google Bukowski quotes you'll turn up a minefield of great things he's said. Such a sharp way with words, really amazing.