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Charles Bukowski has been called many things — an archetypal drunk, a disgusting misogynist, a misanthropic male pig and, most commonly, a terrible poet (or not a poet at all). In a New Yorker review of Bukowski’s works, Adam Kirsch remarks that, “He bears the same relation to poetry as Zane Grey does to fiction or Ayn Rand to philosophy — a highly coloured, morally uncomplicated cartoon of the real thing."
In fact, whenever there is a collection of “Greatest American Poets”, his name is never mentioned. And yet he is, in my opinion, the greatest American poet ever. Whether or not you have read his stuff, here are five inspirational Bukowski quotes that have helped shape me as a writer and content marketer.
1. Find Your Own Voice
“The way to create art is to burn and destroy ordinary concepts and to substitute them with new truths that run down from the top of the head.”
What strikes me most in Bukowski’s poetry is his simple, seemingly random, free-verse style of writing. Unlike many other great poets, he never concerned himself with flowery language and beautiful imagery. Instead, to capture life at its most raw and elemental his poems were of a harsh and jagged style, uniquely lacking in rhyme and metaphor. They brimmed with brutal, unflinching honesty on social outcasts, the drunks, criminals and the worn-down in life.
Though he found his unique voice by aggressively avoiding the traditional style of poetry and writing, he did subtly admit that he was greatly influenced by writers like Louis-Ferdinand Celine (who is in some ways a more raw version of Bukowski).
Contrary to what many think, a writer’s voice is more learned than discovered. When I first started writing, I struggled with this. I felt disingenuous, as my writing seemed to reflect the many writers I read and whose writing I had become familiar.
But are we not, after all, a product of our environment and influences? I have now come to realise that there is nothing wrong with being influenced by those greater than I, and applying their lessons to my writing.
2. Be Honest
“It’s when you begin to lie to yourself in a poem in order to simply make a poem, that you fail.”
With Bukowski’s direct style of writing came unapologetic honesty. This was honesty not just about what he observed about the life of the downtrodden. He also wrote a lot about his own life, with his first four novels being extremely autobiographical.
Not only did he detail the suffering he had as a child with the abuse he received from his father, he also relates his personal experiences with prostitutes and his misanthropic attitude. In his novel Women, he even provides details of every physical nuance of every female who dared sleep with him. Though he comes across as a misogynistic pig more times than not, how can I not respect his lack of care for what I (and all his other readers) think? He wrote for himself. He wrote for self-expression.
Of course, as a content marketer, writing for clients means having to cater to their wishes. But one thing I have learnt from Bukowski is that even in writing for others, you only write well when you are writing about what you know, understand and love.
Though we may not have as much wiggle room as a poet does, there is always room for something that interests you in every niche. I live by a simple mantra: if I would not want to read it, no one else will want to read it either.
3. Don’t Try So Hard
“If it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it.”
When Bukowski was buried in 1994, his headstone was adorned with one of his most famous quotes: “Don’t Try”.
Don’t try? This might seem like a flippant philosophy on life and his art, but there is definitely something profound to these immortal words. After a little digging, I found what he meant in a letter written in 1963, in response to someone who asked, “How do you write, create?” Bukowski’s answer: “You don’t try. That’s very important: ‘not’ to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more.”
Writers block happens so very, very often. The creative process is a matter of capturing lightning in a bottle. I sometimes find myself sitting at my desk staring for hours at my blank Microsoft Word document just trying to squeeze content out my brain. But what about a pressing deadline, you might ask. Well, don’t try. Just do.
4. But if You Do Try, Go All the Way
“If you're going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is.”
Bukowski may not have had a care in the world, but what he did have was a fair bit of persistence. In his early- to mid-twenties, he tried to get his stories published. Almost all of them were rejected by publishers, which led to him quitting writing for a decade.
Fortunately for both him and us, he finally picked it up again in the 1950s, submitted loads of poems to publishers everywhere, and though it took him years to get published, his perseverance paid off. Bukowski finally got noticed when he was aged in his late 40s — after 25 years spent penning thousands of poems and stories.
How does this translate to a writer like myself? Firstly, a writer has only written when the piece of writing is finished. Pushing through writers block is crucial. Secondly, there is the editing and more editing. Then the rewriting and more rewriting! That certainly takes patience and stamina. Lastly, and most importantly: practice. Apparently, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. If that doesn’t require perseverance, then I’m not sure what does.
5. Just Write
“The secret is writing down one simple line after another.”
Bukowski once shared what he felt was the big secret to all great writing, which I think — though stated in the context of fiction and poetry — is equally important for content marketers like myself.
How exactly did he eventually manage to sell millions of books and create such long-lasting fame for himself? Like in all his writing, he states his lesson simply: “The secret is in the line.”
The truth is, sky-high marketing budgets and elaborate advertising campaigns can only do so much — it is compelling and believable storytelling that really sells.