6 Things I Learned From Charles Bukowski

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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.”)

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.

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.

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,
Factotum)
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.]

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the rest of the article

October
6, 2011

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