Saturday, February 11, 2023

My Critique on Charles Bukowski's poem, "so you want to be a writer?"

Yesterday I shared Charles Bukowski's poem "so you want to be a writer?" on my Facebook timeline, and many of you liked it. I shared it because it is a beautiful poem. But I must also add that I do not agree with all the thoughts expressed in that poem. In this short essay, I provide my reflections on the poem. It is partly a critique and partly an appreciation of the poem. Hope you enjoy it!

Charles Bukowski is known for his dark, straightforward writing, and this poem is no exception. But let me start with the bright side of the poem. The poem wonderfully conveys some of my experiences as a writer as well. I am no big writer, but even a lesser mortal like me has experienced times when writing was an absolutely joyous experience. These were the times when I seemed to be in a zone; the words, sentences, paragraphs, and even entire monographs flowed without much effort. Bukowski describes this experience in the last few lines of his poem:
" have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it..."

These lines capture the sheer beauty of writing. When I have been in a similar state, writing has felt completely effortless. Time flies by without me noticing it. It is a truly wonderful experience; you almost feel like you have been "chosen" by Maa Saraswati Herself to communicate certain ideas to the world. It is simultaneously a humbling and rewarding experience, because you know your capacities as a writer are extremely limited compared to the effortlessness with which the ideas and words flowed out through you. But then such experiences are few and far between, not just for the relatively low-level writers like me, but for the greats as well. Most of the time, writing involves a tremendous amount of effort.

Most of the time
"it doesn't come bursting out of you."

Most of the time, you do
"...have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words..."

Most of the time, you do
"...have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again..."

Most of the time, writing is
"...hard work just (even) thinking about doing it..."

What do you do when you experience such challenges? Bukowski provocatively answers this question several times in his poem: "don't do it."

Bukowski says,
"...don't do it
if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed..."

It is difficult to disagree with Bukowski here. He is essentially emphasizing that it is more important to have intrinsic motivation for writing rather than extrinsic motivations such as money or fame. There is a humongous body of literature supporting the benefits of intrinsic motivation.  So, Bukowski is not wrong here.

But at the same time, I cannot agree with his idea of not doing it if you are having difficulty. Bukowski seems to have a rationale for why one should stop trying:
"don't be like so many writers,
don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don't add to that."

In other words, Bukowski seems to be concerned about the quality of writing that is out there in the world, and he likely thinks it is because far too many people are writing who simply lack the aptitude to do it well. This is akin to many mediocre musicians trying to make it in the music industry, or many terrible actors trying their luck in films. You can call it elitist thinking (and that would not be incorrect) but Bukowski doesn't want more mediocrity in the world of writing.

You cannot argue for mediocrity in any field. But at the same time you cannot ignore the fact that in order to produce great work, a person must first put in tremendous amounts of effort to become a competent writer. And that involves long hours of practice and dedication. One of my professors in my Ph.D. program, who is among the top three most highly cited researchers in my field had told me that he did not consider himself a talented researcher or writer at all. Instead, he thought of himself as at best a man with average capabilities. But he had exceedingly high levels of grit that made him work hard for more than anyone else, and that's what gave him the edge in the end.

So, while I agree with Bukowski's sentiment that we should strive to write better and produce great works of art, I think we should never forget the effort it takes to become a skilled writer. Hard work, determination, and practice are necessary components of becoming a great writer. This means toiling away at it, and not giving up despite the difficulty of the task. During these times of frustration and difficulty, it is important to ignore Bukowski's advice of "don't do it." Instead, you still do it!

You have to sit there and write even when it is hard because that is the only way for you to develop the capacities that facilitate the experience of those rare moments of Maa Saraswati's grace where everything just flows effortlessly. You have to go through the grind to experience the euphoria. There is no other way!

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