6 Things I Learned from Charles Bukowski

Via on Oct 6, 2011

Bukowski was disgusting, his actual real fiction is awful, he’s been called a misogynist, overly simplistic, the worst narcissist, (and probably all of the above are true to an extent) and whenever there’s a collection of “Greatest American Writers” he’s never included.

And yet… he’s probably the greatest American writer ever. Whether you’ve read him or not, and most have not, there’s 6 things worthy of learning from an artist like Bukoswski.

I consider “Ham on Rye” by Bukowski probably the greatest American novel ever written. It’s an autobiographical novel (as are all his novels except “Pulp” which is so awful it’s unreadable) about his childhood, being beaten by his parents, avoiding war, and beginning his life of destitution, hardship, alcoholism, and the beginnings of his education as a writer.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit he’s an influence. Many people hate him and I’m much more afraid of being judged than he ever was.

1) Honesty. His first four novels are extremely autobiographical. He details the suffering he had as a child (putting his parents in a very bad light but he didn’t care), he details his experiences with prostitutes, his lack of interest in holding down a job, his horrible experiences and lack of real respect for the women he was in relationships with, and on and on. His fiction and poetry document thoroughly the people he hates, the authors he despises, the establishment he could care less about (and he hated the anti-establishment just as much. One quote about a potential plan the hippie movement was going to do: “Run a pig for president? What the fuck is that? It excited them. It bored me.”)

(my favorite comic book artist, R. Crumb, often illustrated Bukowski's poems and stories)

Most fiction writers do what fiction writers do: they make stuff up. They tell stories that come from their imagination. Bukowski wasn’t really able to do that. Whenever he attempted fiction (his last novel being a great example) it fell flat. Even his poetry is non-fiction.

There’s one story he wrote (I forget the name) where he’s sitting in a bar and he wants to be alone and some random guy starts talking to him: “its horrible about all those girls who were burned” and Bukowski says (I’m getting the words a little off. Doing this from memory), “I don’t know.” And the guy and everyone else in the bar starts yelling, “This guy doesn’t care that all those little girls burned to death”. But Bukowski was honest, “It was a newspaper headline. If it happened in front of me I’d probably feel different about it.” And he refused to back down and stayed in the bar until closing time.

(Matt Dillon playing a young Bukowski in "Factotum")

He had very few boundaries as to how far his honesty could go. He never wrote about his daughter after she reached a certain age. That’s about the only boundary I can find. Every other writer has so many things they can’t write about: family, spouses, exes, children, jobs, bosses, colleagues, friends. That’s why they make stuff up. Bukowski didn’t let himself get hampered by that so we see real raw honest, a real anthropological survey of being down and out for 60+ years without anything being held back. No other writer before or since has done that. For a particular example, see his novel, “Women” which detailed every sexual nuance of every woman who dared to sleep with him after he achieved some success. Most of these women were horrified after the book came out.

I try as hard as possible to remove all boundaries. But it’s a challenge with each post I do.

2) Persistence. Bukowski got two stories published when he was young (24 and 26 years old) but almost all of his stories were rejected by publishers. So he quit writing for ten years. Then, in the mid 1950s he started up again. He submitted tons of poems and stories everywhere he could. It took him years to get published. It took him even more years to get really noticed. And it finally took him about 15 years of writing every day and writing thousands of poems and stories before he finally started making a living as a writer. He wrote his first novel at the age of 49 and it was financially successful. After 25 years of plugging away at it he was finally a successful writer.

25 years!

Most people give up much earlier, much younger. Both my grandfather and father wanted to be musicians, for instance. Both gave up in their 20s and 30s and took what they thought was the safer route. (The safer route being, in my opinion, what ultimately killed both of them).

And this persistence was while he was going through three marriages, dozens of jobs, and non-stop alcoholism. Some of this is documented (poorly) in the move “Barfly” but I think a better movie about Bukowski is the indie that Matt Dillon did about his novel, “Factotum” which details the 10 years he was going from job to job, woman to woman, just trying to survive as an alcoholic in a world that kept beating him down.

He wrote his first novel in 19 days. Michael Hemmingson who I write about below, wrote me and said Bukowski had to finish that novel so fast because he was desperately afraid he was going to be a failure at being a successful writer and didn’t want to disappoint John Martin, who had essentially given him an advance for the novel.

(a tattoo of the epitaph on Bukowski's tombstone)

3) Survival. When I think “constant alcoholic” I usually equate that with being a homeless bum. Bukowski, at some deep level, realized that he needed to survive. He couldn’t just be a homeless bum and kill himself, no matter how many disappointments he had. He worked countless factory jobs (the basis of the non-fiction novel, “Factotun”) but even that wasn’t stable enough for him. Finally, he took a job working for the US Government (you can’t get more stable) working in the post office for 11 years. He didn’t miss child support payments (although he constantly wrote about how ugly the mother of his child was), and as far as I know he was never homeless or totally down and out from his early 30s ’til the time he started having success as a writer.

And despite writing about the overwhelming poverty he had, he did have a small inheritance from his father, a savings account he built up, and a steady paycheck. The post office job is documented, in full, in his first “novel” called, appropriately, “Post Office”. Many people think that’s his best novel but I put it third or fourth behind “Ham on Rye” and “Factotum” and possibly “Women”. He also wrote a novel, “Hollywood” about the blow-by-blow experience of doing the movie “Barfly”. All the names are changed (hence its claim to be fiction) but once you figure out who everyone is, its totally non-fiction. Like all of his other novels (not counting “Pulp”, which was the worst American novel ever written and published).

[See, 33 Unusual Ways to Be a Better Writer – many tips I got from reading his books.]

4) Discipline. Imagine working a brutal 10 hour shift at the Post Office, coming home and arguing with your wife or girlfriend, or half-girlfriend, half-prostitute that was living with you, finishing off three or four six-packs of beer and then…writing. He did it every day. Most people want to write that novel, or finish that painting, or start that business, but have zero discipline to actually sit down and do it. If there was any talent that Bukowski had that I can’t actually figure out how he got it, its that discipline.

When he was younger (early 20s, late teens) he spent almost every day in the library, falling in love with all the great writers. The love must have been so great it superseded almost everything else in his life. He had to write like them or he really felt like he would die. He had to “put down a good line” as he would say. And every day he would try. And good, bad, or ugly, he probably ultimately ended up publishing (many posthumously) everything he ever wrote. I try to match that discipline. Even when I don’t post a blog post I write seven days a week, every morning. At least 1000 words and a completed post. I used to do this in my 20s when I was trying to write fiction. My minimum then was 3000 words. I did that for five years.

It adds up. The average book is 60,000 words. If you can write 1000 words a day then you’ll have 6 books by the end of the year. Because poetry books are much smaller, Bukowski probably had around 80 or so books published by the time he was dead and I bet there are more coming.

(his first novel at age 49. You're never too old).

5) His “literary map”. He was inspired by several writers and he inspired many more. Some of my favorite writers come from both categories. He was probably most inspired by three writers: Celine, Knut Hamsun, and John Fante. I highly recommend Celine’s “Journey to the End of the Night”. Celine is almost a more raw version of Bukowski. He was constantly angry and trying to survive and do whatever it took to survive. The thing about Bukowski, as opposed to many other writers, is he didn’t concern himself with flowery images or beautiful sunsets. He totally wrote as if he were speaking to you and Celine does that to an extreme but he’s so raw and smart that the way he “speaks” is like an insane person trying to spew out as much venom as possible. 600 pages later his first book is a masterpiece and I often use it in my pre-writing hour every morning when I read stuff to inspire myself to write.

John Fante wrote the underappreciated “Ask the Dust” which was completely forgotten until Bukowski’s publisher republished it and all of Fante’s books. (I also recommend the movie with Colin Farrell and a naked Salma Hayek).

(maybe Hayek's best role)

Bukowski was almost afraid to admit how much Fante directly influenced him. He wrote in one “short story”, “I realized that admitting John Bante had been such a great influence on my writing might detract from my own work, as if part of me was a carbon copy, but I didn’t give a damn. It’s when you hide things that you choke on them.”

Note he spelled “Fante” as “Bante”. That’s the extent of Bukowski’s fiction. Another interesting thing is the last line. Nothing flowery, nothing descriptively beautiful, yet a line like that is what made Bukowski unique and one of the best writers ever, getting at the hidden truth of what was really happening in his head, rather than telling yet another boring story filled with flowery descriptions like most books and stories are.

Then there’s the authors Bukowski influenced. Michael Hemmingson wrote an excellent review of Bukowski in the book “The Dirty Realism Duo: Bukowski and Carver” which I highly recommend. Raymond Carver comes from the same genre of down-and-out, oppressive relationships that were beyond his ability to cope with them, and realist, simple writing that was mostly autobiographical (although that’s a little less clear in Carver’s case). I’d also throw Denis Johnson’s book of short stories (Jesus’ Son) in that category (Johnson studied with Carver) and more recently, books like the above-mentioned Michael Hemmingson’s “Crack Hotel”, “The Comfort of Women”, “My Date(Rape) with Kathy Acker” and other stories. I’m dying to find other writers in this category.

(I haven't seen the movie. Is it good?)

I read how Denis Johnson needed $10,000 to pay the IRS. So he threw together some vignettes he had forgotten about, called the collection “Jesus’ Son” and sent it off to Jonathan Galassi and said, “here, you can have these if you pay the IRS”. So I Facebook-friended Galassi and asked him if he could tell me one author in Denis Johnson’s league but I’m still waiting for a response.

I wish I could find more writers like these. Perhaps William Vollmann who wrote “Butterfly Stories” but his bigger fiction is too difficult for me to read (anecdote: he wrote the afterward to the recently re-published Celine’s “Journey of the Night” so all of these writers tend to recognize their common lineage.)

6) Poetry. I really hate poetry. When I open up the New Yorker (blecch!) and read the latest poems in there I can’t understand them, they all seem like gibberish to me, they all seem too intellectual. And yet, out of all the poets I’ve read, the only ones I really like are: Bukowski, Raymond Carver, and Denis Johnson. Poetry allowed them to master making each word in a sentence effective and powerful. It was this training that allowed them to destroy the competition when they sat down to write their longer pieces. It makes me want to try my hand at poetry but even the word “poetry” sounds so pseudo-intellectual I just have no interest in doing it.

Bukowski: Alcoholic, postal worker, misogynist (there’s a video you can easily find on Youtube where he must be almost 60 and he literally kicks his wife in anger while he’s being interviewed.), anti-war, anti-peace, anti-everything, hated everyone, probably insecure, extremely honest, and he had to write every day or it would kill him.

In his own words, words which I hope to live by: “What a joy it must be to be a truly great writer, even if it means a shotgun at the finish”.

————————

Suggested Reading:

Biographical:

- Michael Hemmingson: The Dirty Realism Due: Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver

- Howard Sounes: “Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life

Bukowski’s Writings (that I recommend):

  • - “Ham On Rye”
  • - “Factotum”
  • - “Women”
  • - “Post Office”
  • - “Hollywood”
  • - “Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook”
  • - “Absence of the Hero”
  • - “The Last Night on theEarth”(poems)
  • (I don’t recommend “Pulp” – don’t read it).

Other fiction in the “Dirty Realism”category:

  • - Celine, “Journey to the End of theNight”
  • - Fante, “Ask the Dust”
  • - Raymond Carver, “Cathedral”
  • - Denis Johnson, “Jesus’ Son”
  • - William Vollmann, “Butterfly Stories”
  • - Michael Hemmingson, “This Other Eden”
  • - Junot Diaz, “Drown”
  • - Jerzy Kosinski, “Steps”

Poem:

“You Don’t know What Love Is (an evening with Bukowski)” by Raymond Carver.

Article: John Fante, father of LA Literature:

Movies:

“Factotum”

If anyone can think of anybody else in this specific “dirty realism” category, please put it in the comments. I’d also like to read women in this category but I think it’s a particularly male category. Jack Kerouac falls somewhere in there but he’s more “beat” which I think is different. And Chad Kultgen’s recent books (“The Average American Male”, for instance) are also somewhat in the realism category but not quite “dirty” enough.

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3 Responses to “6 Things I Learned from Charles Bukowski”

  1. ashley says:

    James,
    Have you read Henry Miller? He aptly fits this ‘dirty realism’ genre. In my early twenties, I loved Miller, but as I’ve re-read some of my former favorites, I can’t digest all the filth to get to the pearls of wisdom like I used to be able to do. Dunno, I’m more refined these days I guess!

  2. Bukowski (and Raymond Carver) are two of the often unsung greats of American Lit. Reading both of them in college was a huge influence for me…helped me learn that real trumps polished every time when it comes to writing. Thanks for writing this.

  3. warriorsaint says:

    Chuck Palahniuk is my personal favorite. There was one novel that had to do with living in a nursing home-the name escapes me-that was brutally honest. Dark hilariously funny.

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