so you want to be a writer?

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Image by Drew Coffman, used under a CC 2.0 license

Image by Drew Coffman, used under a CC 2.0 license

For my 17th birthday I got a collection of Charles Bukowski’s poems. I remember reading it and one poem in particular standing out to me. In fact, ‘so you want to be a writer?‘ hit me in the guts the way Charles Bukowski says writing should explode out of them.

if it doesn’t come busting out of you 
in spite of everything 
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. 

17-year-old me felt as though Charles Bukowski had written that poem for me. It was everything I felt writing should be – it should be an outpouring, it should be a profusion of thought and feeling, and it should come naturally. And yet, and yet – nearly ten years later, where has this approach to writing got me? What if, instead of waiting for it to roar out of me, as Bukowski advises, I had sat for hours staring at my computer screen, searching for words or rewriting the same essay over and over. What if, despite the very thought of it being hard work, I had sat down night after night to write. And what if I had read my work to anyone who would listen. What if, instead of waiting for my soul to explode like a rocket, I had made a cup of tea, sat at my desk and written anyway. Surely I would be a better writer than I am now.

And I’m realising that I’m not as good a writer as I could be. I’m not disciplined enough. I don’t write everyday and this needs to change. I don’t push myself enough either. I write about the things I like writing about, in a style I feel comfortable with. I don’t stretch myself, and this needs to change.

For the last week I have felt the need to write and I knew the only thing that would cure this itching, distracting feeling would be to sit down and write. So what did I do? I washed the pots, I cooked unnecessarily elaborate meals, I read books (and told myself that reading counted as writing), I checked Twitter, I went jogging, I even sat down and did some Dutch practise – in short, I did everything but write. This has to change.

I don’t really know what my goals as a writer are, but for now, I know that I need to get better and the only way that’s going to happen is if I push myself, every single day. I’m going to start by doing some writing exercises – something I have always hated and avoided because they force me to write about topics or in styles that don’t come easily. I’m also going to start experimenting with different writing routines, writing at different times of day and in different locations. For instance, I’ve never really given writing in a café a go, which seems like basic writing 101. I also spend three hours of my day on a train, which is precious time that could be spent writing. I may blog about it as I go along – although, to paraphrase Bukowski, the servers of the world have yawned themselves to sleep over that kind of blog.

So, Mr Bukowski, as much as I love your poetry, you’re just wrong. Writing is a craft, it’s a skill that requires honing, and rockets and exploding guts would only get in the way of the many, many quiet hours that lie ahead.

0 thoughts on “so you want to be a writer?”

  1. In a bit of a creative nadir I listened to the two Elizabeth Gilbert podcasts for TED about Creativity.

    They offer compelling insights into the amount of suffering writers are willing to tolerate in pursuing their ambition. She discusses the Socratic idea of a Daemon and the later idea of a Genius; guides who are supposedly at the heart of the creative ‘spark’ writers are supposed to be able to access.

    She came up with the idea of Home, not really your residence but the mind-place where you feel comfort. If lost in the writing process you aim for Home. If you watch her talking about Home the power you see what a profound effect it has on her.

    Your writing is good. I like reading it. Keep doing it the way that you do it!!!

    1. I think I’ve listened to one of the TED talks because the ‘home’ idea sounds familiar, will have to give it another listen! I definitely agree that if you’re feeling stuck and really can’t write, then heading for a place that feels comfortable – writing in a familiar style or about a topic you enjoy writing about – is better than not writing at all!

      And thank you – I’m glad you enjoy my writing, hopefully writing more will only improve it. I don’t think I could ever completely change my style anyway!

      1. It’s something about speed of writing too. The social media-space almost demands that we constantly feed it with newness or we will fall behind, be less good, be unfriended, followed less. Never happens though. The space is so crowded that we aren’t missed.

        Sometimes it’s worth the wait for a fascinating piece of writing to arrive!!

  2. For years I never applied myself to writing – I’d sit down in moments of inspiration/teenage angst and end up being frustrated at my inability to pour my genius out onto the page 🙂 I agree, writing is a craft that has to be learnt like anything else. I really enjoy your writing – you have a very engaging style.

    1. Thank you!

      Yes, I have felt the same way a lot in the past – frustrated because amazing writing didn’t just come pouring out! I don’t know why we seem to think that creative pursuits like writing or composing music should somehow come naturally. We don’t think that way about, say, carpentry or website design.

  3. Years ago I talked with a photographer about inspiration. And he summarised it in a quote by Picasso:

    ”La inspiración existe, pero tiene que encontrarte trabajando” (Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working).

    I think this discipline: doing exercises, writing routines and so on (or having your camera always with you, playing with lights, lenses…) will help you to control the rockets and exploding guts when they appear. It is not easy to pilot a rocket, ;-).

    Good luck and enjoy.

  4. You make some fair points Naomi, and let’s all agree that yes, writing is a craft that has to be worked at. Having said that ….
    It doesn’t mean that Bukowski is wrong, it just means that you are not the same kind of writer as Bukowski. The bit I take issue with is where you say: ‘I write about the things I like writing about, in a style I feel comfortable with. I don’t stretch myself, and this needs to change.’ Well, I’m not so sure that it does need to change. I don’t know your work, but it may be that the things you like writing about are the things you need to write about, and that the way you choose to write about them does in fact speak to readers because they recognise that there is some of yourself in there. Experiment by all means, but it may be that by forcing yourself to write about other topics in other ways, you will end up with work which you don’t believe in. I am all in favour of practice and perfecting one’s craft as a writer, absolutely; but I don’t think you should embark on some kind of self-punishing writing-is-pain trip. It may be that you do your best work when you say: this small thing is my subject, and no one else’s; this is how I like writing it. And, really, it does have to be an enjoyable experience, not an ordeal! Check out Zadie Smith’s essay ‘Fail better’ which says it all. Link here

    1. Thanks for the link, interesting essay. I guess I wasn’t trying to suggest that writing should be painful. Its just that sometimes I have to force myself to sit down at my computer and write. Okay, so perhaps it was rash of me to say that Bukowski is just flat out wrong, as you say, he is a different writer to me. But I suppose I have had his model of writing shadowing over me and it makes me question whether, because I sometimes have to force myself to write, I’m really a writer or that I even want to write. Since I wrote this post I’ve started writing on the train in the morning and on the way home in the evening. Sometimes I have to make myself do it because I’m tired or I’d rather read or look out the window, but actually as time goes by, its becoming more of a habit and once I get over the initial reluctance, I find its some of the most focused writing I do all week.

      I’ve also started to do more writing exercises, as I said in the post I wanted to do. I’m not sure in the end that it’s really forced me to write in a different style and as you say, I think that’s probably a good thing. But it has been interesting to write about topics I would never have usually written about, like football and music, and to find that actually, although I’m not likely to make those areas my specialism, its been fun and I’ve enjoyed it – it hasn’t been painful at all!

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts – its actually nice to have someone disagree with you!

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