Maverick Writer Charles Bukowski’s Lessons on Writing and Living

“Old writer puts on sweater, sits down, leers into computer screen and writes about life. How holy can we get?” — Charles Bukowski

As a student, I read all the novels of Bukowski I could get my hands on in about two weeks. It was summer and I lived in a beautiful canal in Amsterdam’s city center. It had a jetty me and my friends used to sit on in the sun to eat and drink. Above us was a small bridge that had to be pulled up every once in a while when a large boat needed to pass through.

I always went to the jetty to read first and at 5 pm I was joined by the others. We got beer and turned on the barbeque, literally on the canal. We set up a table and chairs and more booze and friends arrived. It was a great time.

And I devoured Bukowski’s books in the sun on that jetty. My favorites are Ham on Rye and Women.

Since these articles about writers I admire are starting to become my most popular posts — and I enjoy writing them immensely — the great maverick Buk couldn’t be absent from the list.

By accident, I found this book on his writing life in my favorite bookstore in Amsterdam, called “The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way”.

The book is a compilation of essays, stories, reviews, introductions Bukowski has written for others, and transcripts of interviews on writing. It’s a nice compilation, but I didn’t like reading all of it. I enjoyed the interviews the most because it reminds me of the man behind the words. A man who lived his life on his own terms and I respect that.

Boy have I found some wonderful gems of witty Bukowski wisdom in this book and interviews. Are you ready?

About Charles Bukowski’s Life

Charles Bukowski was born in 1920 in Germany, but grew up in the US.

His earliest memory of writing was when he was 13. It was about “a German aviator with a steel hand who shot hundreds of Americans out of the sky during WWII.”

When he’s asked what he holds responsible for his writing success, he says the following: “A brutal childhood, alcohol, half a dozen rotten jobs, a dozen rotten women, plus an overpowering fear of almost everything, plus a strange arrival of luck and bravery in sub-zero situations.”

I think he gave us a decent summary of his life here, don’t you think?

When I think of Bukowski I think of the rascal, the unapologetic and maverick writer, pounding on his typewriter with a cigarette burning in the corner of his mouth.

Besides cigarettes, he required wine and symphony music playing in the background to get into his writing flow.

After quitting his job at the post office in the sixties, a job prominently featured in his debut novel ‘Post Office’, Bukowski began to earn a living through poetry readings, book sales, royalties and writing for magazines and journals.

#1: On Writing & Art

In the book, David Stephen Calonne says the following about Bukowski: “Experience exists in order to be turned into poetry and prose, but he also is constantly mocking himself and the pretensions of the “artist”.” — Well, pretensions of anyone, really, I would add.

If you’re a fan of Bukowski’s work, you know most of his work is autobiographical. Henry Chinaski is a dramatized alter-ego of Buk himself. His personal life is more than intertwined with his art. It’s like he tried to live in such a way that it became art. Then, afterward, he captured it in poems and prose.

“I mean, I write poems, stories, novels. The poems are basically true, the rest is truth mixed with fiction. Do you know what fiction is? … Fiction is an improvement on life.” — Charles Bukowski

I think Bukowski is very vulnerable, raw, and gritty in his writing. Sometimes he can be poisonous and destructive too. His take on the world is far from filled with rainbows and daisies.

#2: On Inspiration and Creativity

“I figure if I can’t write under all circumstances, then I’m just not good enough to do it.” — Charles Bukowski
Bukowski’s: “So You Want to be a Writer?”

If you want to be a writer or do anything creative, Bukowski has a clear message to you: “if it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it.” It’s blunt, but he has a point doesn’t he? You must love creating completely, no matter what.

Bukowski is a no-nonsense writer. He doesn’t talk about inspiration or muses.

“The writing arrives when it wants to. There is nothing you can do about it. You can’t squeeze more writing out of the living than is there. Any attempt to do so creates a panic in the soul, diffuses and jars the line.” — Charles Bukowski

But fear not: we don’t have to wait for inspiration to strike in order to write. Even Bukowski wasn’t superhuman. In another interview, he says the following: “Even though I had no story in my mind, you sit down, you type the first line, and it just goes. But mostly, you can’t force it. Somebody told me once of somebody who writes eight hours a day. Now that’s stuff gotta be bad. That’s pure panic. Too much.”

I can relate to what Bukowski is saying here. When I don’t feel inspired, but want to stay in my habit of writing every day, I want to avoid starting. It’s like postponing to go to the gym, even though you know you feel better afterwards. But when I sit down and type that first line, it comes. And often it’s good enough to keep the story flowing. I can always polish later.

“The diffusion of talent usually occurs among writers in their twenties who don’t have enough experience, who don’t have enough meat to pick off the bone. You can’t write without living and writing all the time is not living. Nor does drinking create a writer or brawling create a writer, and although I’ve done plenty of both, it’s merely a fallacy and a sick romanticism to assume that these actions will make a better writer out of one.” — Charles Bukowski

I especially like the line I made bold here. You have to live and experience life in order to write. Only then can you figure out what it is you want to say to the world.

When Bukowski was asked to give advice to novice writers and poets, he says: “He should stay the hell out of writing classes and find out what’s happening around the corner.”

#3: On Developing a Writing Style

Charles Bukowski: “Style not only evolves through a method, it evolves through a feeling, it is like laying a brush to canvas in a certain way and if you’re not living along the path of power and flow, style vanishes.
You have to have juice in each line. Pace, energy, light. Make people want to turn the page.
Each line must have juice and be able to stand on its own.
I try to break it down and make it just as simple as possible, just say what I’m thinking. It’s about naturalness.”

You have a style, no matter if you’re just starting out or if you’ve been writing for years. The only difference is, you hone your style with time and practice. You have your own way of putting the words on a page. There are as many different styles as there are people. Perhaps even more.

The lesson I take from Bukowski is to keep it simple. Keep it natural. He says: “Genius could be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way, or even to say a thing in a simpler way.”

Don’t try to be someone you’re not. It’s not only Bukowski who has this take on style. Stephen King and Haruki Murakami do too.

Bukowski’s writing is accessible and easy to understand. On the other end it’s packed with lines that can serve as quotes without them being complicated. There’s a certain flow to his writing that doesn’t want to make me stop as a reader. I even read faster than I usually do.

“I’m so bored with novels that I made each chapter like machine gun bullets, fast and short. I’ve tried so many great novels, like War and Peace, and you’ve got to climb through so many mountains of shit to get where it’s going. I thought I’d make each chapter a short story by itself, each relating to the central theme. So I wasn’t bored writing it. My theory is that if you get bored writing it, the reader’s going to get bored reading it.” — Charles Bukowski

If you’re boring yourself working on something, stop working on it. In line with his message above in the Youtube video, if it doesn’t come bursting out of you, stop. I’ve abandoned plenty of partly written stories because I just wasn’t excited. (Side note: I sometimes refer back to them and get inspired again and finish the story enjoying it thoroughly. Sometimes you just have to keep it simmer).

I’m always curious how other writers edit. Every author has a different method. While one of the last author’s I explored (Murakami) does many complete revises (about 4–8 times), Bukowski has a shorter take on the editing process: “I revise, but not too much. The next day I retype the poem and automatically make a change or two, drop out a line, or make two lines into one or one line into two, that sort of thing.”

Bukowski is not very keen on editors either: “I found out that editors wanted everything in a cage.”

#4: On Writing and Living

Charles Bukowski: “I have no message to the world. I am not wise enough to lead, yet I am wise enough not to follow.
Well, if you’re a good writer you’re always going to disturb somebody with almost everything you write. There’s that word with the capital, “Truth,” you know…”

There’s that rascal again, that writer who lives life on his own terms. I love that. I wish I could be as unapologetic. Slow and steady wins the race I guess.

Interviewer: “Do you have any regrets?”
Bukowski: “No, especially the way I live. It’s been pretty damn good, a wide-open gamble. I gave up writing for ten years and did that ten hard years of living; drinking, hospitals, jails, women, bad jobs, madness. Even now I think of a night that happened, write a poem, a short story. I can draw into that even now.

Living life on your own terms, doing what you love, it sounds pretty damn good to me. Although I’m no Bukowski, neither in lifestyle nor writing style.

“The writing’s easy, it’s the living that’s sometimes difficult.” — Charles Bukowski

Here’s another interview with him on a Dutch/Belgian TV show which is pretty explanatory for how he lives and thinks:

I love that line he says at the end of the interview in the Youtube video above: “We are tough men together, through the horrors of life.”

#5: On the Profession of Writing

“I’m a professional writer, man, get up at noon, get up at six, get up at three, hell, my life’s my own. But that can get rough too, you know, you have to face yourself, it’s all sitting on you. But it’s lively.” — Charles Bukowski

Again that unapologetic take on his life and his craft. I get it though, even if I’m not a full-time writer (yet, let’s stay positive). I would love to spend the remainder of my life living and writing. Chasing my own dreams and interests instead of someone else’s.

But one has to pay the rent, too. In an earlier article, I explained how I’m trying to turn things around, slowly, steadily and hopefully, responsibly.

Bukowski claimed to have had over 100 odd jobs to support himself. Writing was always his first love, however.

“Writing, finally, even becomes work especially if you’re trying to pay the rent and child support with it. But it is the finest work and the only work, and it’s a work that boosts your ability to live and your ability to live pays you back with your ability to create. One feeds the other; it’s all very magic.” — Charles Bukowski

I would be cautious still. I don’t want my writing to become a burden on my income and therefore on my creativity. I am planning to have my writing outgrow my other sources of income. That would be the ideal scenario. The only one who can do this though is me.

Let’s end this piece on a quote I particularly liked. It’s a bit harsh, but I get the sentiment completely:

“For me to get paid for writing is like going to bed with a beautiful woman and afterwards she gets up, goes to her purse and gives me a handful of money.” — Charles Bukowski

I hope you enjoyed some of the wisdom from America’s most notorious “Dirty Old Man”.

What were your favorite takeaways?