Analyzing Bukowski’s “so you want to be a writer?”

Today’s article will be a bit different than usual; it’s based on a talk I gave several years ago, centring around Charles Bukowski’s incredible poem, “so you want to be a writer?” 

(You can read the full poem at this link from poets.org.)

Writing as an act of survival

I’ve mentioned Bukowski several times on this blog; he’s undoubtedly my favourite writer and someone I draw intense inspiration from. So, when I was writing my lecture about the usefulness of writing, his work definitely came to mind.

I used Bukowski’s poem as an example of how writing often functions as a means for survival. As I’ve written about on the Writing Advice blog, I too have used the writing process as a therapeutic means to quite literally stay alive. 

Let’s look at the first lines of the poem:

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.

Now, Bukowski was a writer who often spoke in extremities. This poem certainly falls into the trope of “the tortured artist” — it romanticizes poetry as something that can only be produced from a state of intense inner turmoil. While you don’t need to be depressed to write good poetry, the sentiment is still useful to consider.

Essentially, Bukowski is pointing out that many great authors experience a certain degree of natural inspiration. Much like musicians often have bursts of creativity where songs “just come to them,” writing often happens in a similar fashion. 

And for someone who writes confessional poetry, this is pretty solid advice; don’t force yourself to produce something just for the sake of producing it. Wait until you feel called to create — until you really have something worth saying — before forcing the process.

Hunching over the keyboard

The next interesting passage, which seems more relevant than ever, says:

if you have to sit for hours

staring at your computer screen

or hunched over your

typewriter

searching for words,

don’t do it.

I think we can all relate to the process of sitting at your computer, wanting to write, and struggling to do so. This is a common point of discussion in the writing community: “writer’s block” and the ways to overcome it. (I’ve covered this on the blog, too, in the article Stuck With Writer’s Block? Here are 5 Tips for Pushing Past It.)

But Bukowski takes an alternative stance — he claims, instead, that if you have to force yourself to sit down and create, maybe you shouldn’t even be writing in the first place. 

Again, this is quite extreme (and pretty negative), but there is some truth to it — especially for creative writers. If writing feels impossible, perhaps it’s time to take a break. 

I’d suggest that — rather than abandoning writing altogether — you give yourself the space to stop writing for a little while. Then, when you feel more inspired and motivated, return to the keyboard.

Patience in writing

Later in the poem, Bukowski writes:

if you have to wait for it to roar out of

you,

then wait patiently.

if it never does roar out of you,

do something else.

This goes back to the idea of taking your time. There is value in being patient, because you can’t rush the creative process. Give it time. Give yourself time.

Skipping ahead, he also writes:

unless it comes out of

your soul like a rocket,

unless being still would

drive you to madness or

suicide or murder,

don’t do it.

Again, this is a strong statement — and not all writers are constantly on the verge of madness, suicide, or murder. But it reinforces Bukowski’s assertion that writing should come naturally, and it should feel necessary.

Lastly, we get the conclusion of the poem:

when it is truly time,

and if you have been chosen,

it will do it by

itself and it will keep on doing it

until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

Here we see the myth of the tortured artist in full force. It’s a dramatic and absolute statement. Yet, again, there is some truth to it.

I’d say that Bukowski’s arguments make sense in the context of creative writing — and especially for confessional poets. For writers like him, whose entire body of work centred around his extremely personal, graphic, and emotional life experiences, this advice does make sense.

And in my experience, when I was at the height of my mental illness, this also held true. My poetry came “unasked” out of me — I wrote as a way to feel better. I didn’t have to put much thought into it; it just happened.

But this doesn’t necessarily hold true for other genres of writing such as journalism, blogging, or non-fiction. In many cases, those types of writing can be forced out and still be meaningful. The writing process doesn’t have to be emotional and dark — you can find inspiration in less heavy ways, like simply doing SEO research.

All of this is to say that Bukowski was a brilliant writer, but you should take his advice with a grain of salt. His assertions may not hold true for every type of writer, but his work is still worth reading.

Wrapping up

Thanks, as always, for reading the Writing Advice blog. I hope you enjoyed this mini poem analysis. Let me know if you like this format — I can definitely break down other pieces of writing in the future, too. And don’t forget to follow the blog so that you’re notified of each new article. 

Happy writing!

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