“Don’t Try” – Charles Bukowski’s Advice to Creators

Bukowski quote: What matters most is how you walk through the fire.

German-American poet, novelist and short story writer Charles Bukowski consciously absorbed the world around him as he inhabited the bars and rooming houses in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. It was here that the “Laureate of American Lowlife” gathered material for much of his writing career – telling the story of drunks, gamblers and down-and-outs, of which he was all three.

After achieving fame, his advice to other writers seeking literary success was so simple and pithy that it rattles in the space on his headstone where it is engraved:

Don’t Try

Bukowski was adamant that the writing should burst out without coercion or commercial ambition.

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.

In a world of 101 things to do the idea of waiting for your creativity to come and lend a hand might seem absurd or luxurious at best, but as creative people can we learn from the journey he travelled following his philosophy of “Don’t Try”?

Photo by Hryck

Too Soon for Success

Despite being published in Story magazine at just 24, Bukowski turned down an agent, believing he wasn’t ready to be a writer and hadn’t “lived enough”. This lack of life experience and self doubt in promoting himself meant he made a conscious decision to stop trying.

I simply gave up. It wasn’t because I thought I was a bad writer. I just thought there was no way of crashing through. I put writing down with a sense of disgust. Drinking and shacking with women became my art form…

It was then that he began amassing a wealth of encounters and episodes that would be featured repeatedly in various forms throughout his vast body of work; he began his ten years of drunkenness.

Bukowski: Ten Year Drunk

The decade from 1945 was a collage of dead end jobs, bars and rooming houses; his existence one of drunkenness, poverty and trouble. He spent his time drinking-in experiences, figuratively and literally, in bars where fights broke out in front of unflinching, still-pouring bartenders. Whilst working only to make enough money for booze and rent, he enforced no creative schedule and no set number of words to be written each day. Instead he ploughed himself into drinking and women and was often on the brink of starvation; his diet at times just a slice of bread a day.

Despite casting aside his intentions to “try”, there were moments when the writing would seek him out. With his typewriter often pawned and without electricity in his room, he would sometimes write by moonlight, shivering from the cold and using pencil stubs to fill newspaper margins with his words. Even at his lowest ebb, torn between suicide and his grim existence, he claimed that the desire to write about his pain rather than escape it kept him alive:

It’s no good quitting, there is always the smallest bit of light in the darkest of hells.

His lifestyle eventually caught up with him: after 10 years of personal destruction, a near-fatal bleeding ulcer gave him an intense desire to write once more. The drinking didn’t stop, but his years of not trying had stored a vast amount of inspiration and he had reached bursting point. On leaving the hospital he began producing work prolifically in a literary outpouring that would bring with it the by-product of worldwide fame and success.

My Own Break

Such an intense experience obviously isn’t a blueprint for everyone’s creative success but I believe there is something to be gained creatively in having periods of not “trying”. I began reading Bukowski shortly before taking my own break.

After studying scriptwriting for three years I knew my creativity was dying on me, and it was my own fault. I was trying too hard to impress and my work reflected this in stilted and contrived pieces that currently gather dust in a drawer. At the end of the course I wasn’t happy with anything I’d written and I decided I was done. Writing wasn’t for me, it made me miserable and so on a whim I decided to seek my fortune working in Toronto, Canada.

It was a year of indulgence and excitement, and of relationships that would bring me laughter and heartbreak. It certainly wasn’t on Bukowski’s scale, but it managed to rejuvenate a spark and by the time I came home I was welcomed by a bashful muse who almost looked pleased to see me. The year gave me new resources to draw upon and as I discovered more about my own personality I found myself impassioned to write about subjects I’d never previously considered. There was water in the creative well once more.

It would be a bit extreme to dart off for a year every time I felt frustrated with writing but I have found that the occasional short sharp reminders of the world outside versus a blank page can do wonders for my productivity. Of course, every time I decide to hit the town and “Don’t Try” there is the nagging feeling that I should be doing “something”. Then again, when I find myself in a pub, drinking whiskey and singing Janis Joplin with girls visiting from Texas and a former WW2 Spitfire fighter pilot I can’t help but feel that might just be the “something” that kick starts my creativity.

“Don’t Try” Is Not “Don’t Do”

The ethos behind Lateral Action is creativity coupled with productivity as the route for success, which also means creatively looking at our productivity. Perhaps sitting and squeezing out every drop of inspiration by sheer force isn’t the best way to get results and we can improve our work and well-being with a little “Don’t Try”.

“Don’t Try” is not about embarking on a hedonistic lifestyle like Bukowski’s for the sake of it. It’s about taking time to let your creativity speak to you. It may arrive through activities and environments that make you elated, or angry, or through putting yourself in situations that are new, perhaps even uncomfortable. Or it may arrive from just sitting still and taking a break.

How Not to Try

Give It Up

Not forever, but when it feels like you’re whipping that donkey of a muse and it still refuses to budge no matter how many carrots you dangle, try just walking away. Try it for 10 minutes, half an hour or half a day and do something else. Shelve your ideas, hide your work in a drawer, file or under the sofa and set a reminder in your calendar for a set time to come back and revisit it after a break. When you return to your work how do you feel? Are you itching to get back to it? Do you have new ideas? If you still feel you’re forcing your creative spirit you might want to take a break for even longer or work on something else altogether.

Find Fuel for Your Muse

Swap working on your art for actively seeking the activities that get you fired up. Meet a friend whose company inspires you, spend the day napping in the park, party till the early hours or try something completely new. Look for things that incite a reaction and remind you you’re alive. Let yourself be a vessel to fill with new encounters and see if you can use these experiences in your creative process.

Tap into Unexploited Resources

Not trying might not be walking away from your work, but creating without a specific purpose. What happens if you sit and write or design or make the first thing that comes into your head regardless of what it is? Do you surprise yourself with what you come up with? Is there a winning idea inside you that has been missed?

Like any productive process it’s all about balance and finding a way to suit the way that you work. Compare days when you haven’t tried with your work and days where you’ve forced yourself. Is there a difference in quality? Is there a difference in how you feel towards your work? Are you more refreshed with regular little breaks or do you feel better slaving away at the end goal before letting off steam?

Try something new.

“Don’t Try”.

Over to You

Have you ever stopped trying – with unexpected positive results?

What did you do? What did you learn from the experience?

About the Author: Amy Harrison is a freelance copywriter based in Brighton. You can find further creative contemplation with a dash of country-music philosophy at HarrisonAmy.com or find her on Twitter at @littleunred.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. I sure did! I was going to give up illustration all together. I tried for about 2 weeks.

    It cleared my head and I changed from trying to be an illustrator to just following my passions. Already I have had positive response from my clients and my family.

    Most importantly I feel good about what I’m doing for myself.

  2. Huge fan of Bukowski from way back. When I went on my first hiatus from writing, I read him extensively, after discovering his work via John Fante (backwards way in, I guess).

    The second hiatus I took was to act for 8 years. I think some family members and close friends were surprised (and disappointed), but it did the trick: when I finally came back to it, not only did I have a wealth of experiences to draw from, I “got” more about writing since I now understood character motivation from a deeper level.

    The one item I’d add to your list of prescriptives for people struggling now is to *limit* your time writing. Set aside one hour or two or whatever, no matter how much time you actually have, and only allow yourself to write then. Merlin Mann brought this up in a recent talk at Jesse Thorn’s Maximum Fun camp (or whatever they called it). In the same way that scarcity can create urgency in the marketing/sales cycle, it can do it for creative output.

  3. As a writer, I always feel the need for inspiration so I can get started with my work over the Internet.

    For me, I find that Video Games provide lots of inspiration for creative work as the stories, characters, concepts and struggles offer a lot of insights.

    Regards,

    Khai

  4. I fully agree. “Trying” is like wanting to walk through a wall by headbutting it. You have to step back, relax, and figure out where the door is.

    The best work has never been done because the artist *had* to do it, but because he/she couldn’t *not* do it. Asimov has a great short story about a writer who tells his agent he’s quitting because he’s tired of writing all the time. The agent hands him his contract and signs him out telling him he’s free to go, no obligations to write. The writer is relieved and happily walks away.

    When somebody in the agent’s office asks him how he could just let this great writer go, the agent smiles and says something like “oh, he’ll be back; they always come back. The contract I voided was a fake. You see, these writers cannot stop writing.”

    I’m off to lie down and not try for a little bit. It can’t do me anything but good :-)

  5. I’m a little more suspicious of ‘don’t try’ than I am of ‘try something else.’ While a 10 year drunk worked ‘well’ for Bukowski, there’s probably a long list of folks that the same can not be said of. We don’t hear from them, so it’s hard to know the odds.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this. Quite often when I am working on something and start to have a little brain cramp I get up and leave it for a while. I usually take a nice long walk with my dog. A lot of times when walking the dog I get a huge rush of ideas and actually hurry my pace home to get back to my work.

    So I am definately a believer in walking away. The “Don’t try” idea is excellent.

  7. Finally, my method of writing is validated. If it’s not ready to come out, it just doesn’t… period.

    Now my partners can’t get mad at me.

    Right guys?

    Guys?

  8. @Brian – Yep.

    And I won’t hear “are you writing code yet?” any more from you either — right? :)

  9. This article caught my eye because of Bukowski. I was introduced to his great work by my English Professor in college. While I agree with “Don’t Try”, there are other colloquialisms that ring true in writing or are perhaps a different wording of “Don’t Try”. Examples such as “Don’t push”, “Don’t force it”, “Be patient”, and “Let it come to you”.

    The job of a creative mind is an odd one. One should not expect for one to just sit down at their desk and do it. Sometimes that happens but sometimes it takes something unexpected. It’s finding that unexpected trigger that is part of the journey of creativity including writing.

  10. Interesting post. I think if you try to guide your creativity, or think too hard about it, you tend to get blocked.

    However, even letting yourself create takes focus.

    Thanks for an interesting read :)

  11. I design and make quilts. When one doesn’t look right I throw it in a corner, and I usually work it out within a week. Sometimes I forget them , but they work themselves out as soon as I find them months later.

  12. @Brian – Well, we’ll have to see if my Muse shows up next week…

    If you need anything, I’ll be in the pub with Amy and the Spitfire pilot. :-)

  13. @mark,
    @brian,
    in fact @ anyone who is looking for a break from trying, there’s always room at my table for creatives looking for distractions ;-)

  14. I have to agree with @Miserere that continuing to head-butt the wall will get you nowhere, yet I think the difficulty with “not trying” is watching others race by you in a fury of productivity. It makes you feel worse for not even stepping up to the plate.

    I’m wrestling with a “not trying” moment these days which I need badly, but is still frustrating since I don’t know when it will end. Then again, it can’t hit you like a sledgehammer if you see it coming and when the moment does arrive it’s pure lightning.

  15. Great article Amy and thank you for sharing intimate details of your own creative process. I included your article in my roundup of the 3 best articles on creativity this week at my site http://www.JerryKolber.com.

  16. Thank you for all your comments, I love the discussions on Lateral Action; it’s always thought provoking and inspiring!

    @michael @ Colleen, thank you for sharing your experiences, even if creatively we are following our passions, sometimes a break is needed to reinforce that idea. Absence either makes the heart grow fonder or… “Out of sight, out of mind…” I do believe your passion will seek you out and if it doesn’t then perhaps it’s not meant to be. I’m thrilled that yours pinned you down with newfound focus and success.

    @khali It’s funny you should mention video games, having two older brothers they were constantly playing video games when I was younger and even though they rarely let me play, I could watch them play for hours, intrigued by the characters and the storylines. Whether video games hamper creativity is probably a whole other article :)

    @miserere thank you for your comment, I haven’t read that particular story but Asimov is another of my favourite authors and he was prolific in producing material because it was his passion. It took him eleven years before he managed to make a living writing and in that time was methodical about producing short stories because he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. He treated his writing and the promotion of his work as though he were training for any other profession; certainly a different style to Bukowski but just as inspiring to creative people I think.

    @fred @nate @ Judy @gabriel @aaron
    Walking away, putting your work down or trying something else, but mostly, not forcing yourself when you’re feeling uninspired seems to be an issue most creative people can empathise with and recognise as an important aspect to the creative process, but just like Gabriel mentions, it can be difficult when those around you seem to be racing past you. I think it takes a lot of confidence to trust in your own methods and know that someone else’s creative methods will differ from yours and remember that enjoying the process is often more important than who finishes first.

    @Jerry thrilled you enjoyed the article, really enjoyed reading your view of it on your site.

  17. suziewheat says:

    so glad i stumbled across this article, gives me affirmation i dont suffer from some kind of affliction otherwise known as creatively lazy…
    pretty much always work on a design, something with it not working, not feeling right, its just not happening. i will leave it, perhaps wear it and from nowhere will come the answer, the inspiration to make it good. this can take hrs, days or even weeks.

  18. @suziewheat – It takes a lot of confidence to trust yourself that the answers will come eventually. Often we feel we should be working away the whole time but it just doesn’t work for everyone that way. It’s more important to try and tune in to what works for you.

    Thank you for your comment!

  19. @AmyHarrison
    the guilt to work away all the time is always there. I guess i can count myself lucky as in while one design not working i can temporarily move on to another. Haphazard but it works for me, right now.

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