So You Want To Be a Writer: Bukowski Debunks the 'Tortured Genius' Myth

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The Factotum author believed writing should be a way of celebrating life, not lamenting it.

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Why do writers—great writers—write? We've heard from George Orwell, Joan Didion, and Susan Sontag. But one of the most poignant answers comes from a somewhat unlikely source: Charles Bukowski—he both cynical and soulful, and always unapologetically irreverent.

With lines like "unless the sun inside you is / burning your gut," reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, and "unless it comes out of / your soul like a rocket," reminiscent of Anaïs Nin, "so you want to be a writer," from the altogether fantastic volume Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way: New Poems (public library), is a necessary reminder that, contrary to the culturally toxic tortured-genius myth, to create is to celebrate rather than bemoan life.

Enjoy this beautiful reading by Tom O'Bedlam, who also gave us Dorianne Laux's sublime "Antilamentation":

so you want to be a writer

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.
if you're doing it for money or
fame,
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don't do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don't do it.
if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
don't do it.
if you're trying to write like somebody
else,
forget about it.

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.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you're not ready.

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-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your kind.
don't add to that.
don't do it.
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.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.

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.

For more first-hand insight on the writing life, see Zadie Smith's 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut's 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy's 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller's 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac's 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck's 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman's 8 rules, Margaret Atwood's 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag's synthesized learnings.


This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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