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:
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.
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.