Reposted from my monthly column at FFC.
The other day on Facebook, my cousin posted a note about her first ever college writing class. The students were asked to bring in a piece of writing they admired and three of them brought in this poem by Charles Bukowski, called “so you want to be a writer.” Here’s how it begins:
if it doesn't come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don't do it. unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don't do it. if you have to sit for hours staring at your computer screen or hunched over your typewriter searching for words, don't do it.
Thinking about the beginning writers in my cousin’s class absorbing those unbelievably discouraging words from a celebrated literary figure sent me into a blind rage. Once I recovered my sight, I typed out a quick rebuttal to let my cousin know that it was okay (more than okay!) to work hard. I’d like to expand on it here, just in case anyone out there is still buying into the myth of the unedited genius.
This poem is very Bukowski. His work is free-flowing and unedited. His words and distinctive style resonate with a lot of writers and I can admire that. The content of the poem, however, is a load of crap.
For most of us, our work is hard work. I know this is true for me. Sometimes I’m incredibly frustrated with my own writing. Sometimes I’m bored. Sometimes I’m anxious and struggling. Sometimes it’s easy, but even then, I’m suspicious. The hard work doesn’t worry me, nor does it worry most of the writers I know. We want to work hard, push our own limits, earn it.
Nothing bothers me more than writers who want to play games like “Who can be the most inspired” or “Who can create a masterpiece in the least amount of drafts.” This is all posturing around the fantasy of the solitary genius writer, to whom writing is like breathing, to whom the words just come. In my mind, these people are bragging about the wrong thing. In real life, the game is more about “Who can stay at the keyboard the longest,” “Who will keep going back to work on the tough scenes,” “Who wants it most even when it’s hard.”
I want to say that it’s okay for it to be hard. Sometimes it’s hard! So is waitressing, so is advanced mathematics, so is heart surgery, so is HVAC repair, so is sculpture. It’s hard so that you’ll know when you’re growing, so that you’ll know when you’re doing something important, so you’ll know where your limits are so you can destroy them. If it’s too easy, it means you need to work harder. You think you’re a genius? Fine. Show me.
But most importantly, in my humble opinion, anyone who tells you “don’t do it” for any reason can go fuck himself. Writing is all about “doing it”, no matter what. The people who “do it” become writers. The people who don’t, don’t. I want to tell you: Do it.
6 thoughts on “Do it.”
I agree and disagree. Absolutely, writing is hard work and if it is something you’re burning to do, then absolutely, do it, keep at it, and don’t let anyone tell you not to. But…if writing is something you “think” you want to do, you “think” you could or should do, but you don’t have that burning passion and undeniable urge to do it, then don’t bother. Why beat yourself up over something that is so fickle? If you can’t stop yourself from writing, then you must write no matter what. But if you can easily stop yourself and go do something else, like HVAC repair, then by all means, do that. You’ll probably be happier in the long run.
I can understand your point, but I don’t think it’s for other writers to say: you, you and you, and not you. And besides, I think the people who aren’t really after it will weed themselves out without Bukowski’s advice.
Damn straight. Thanks for that.
You got it!
I agree with you, the message behind that poem is stupid and exclusionary. If everyone decided not to do things that were difficult, no one would accomplish anything, ever. I always admire David Foster Wallace for being candid about how difficult it was to write a story or novel. And he is 100x better than Bukowski, so Bukowski can shove it.