Charles Bukowski, today known as a celebrated author, found success only in his fifties. In his twenties, he wrote hundreds of short stories. Two of these were published, both of which barely sold any copies. This was during a time when Bukowski traveled across the U.S, and worked several blue-collar jobs. Years later, he nearly died from a bleeding ulcer.
A man, who lived a difficult life, and at one point, it seemed clear, at least to himself, that he would never achieve any recognition for his work, had the following advice to give, “don’t try.” and yet these words do not seem to be congruent with someone who never stopped trying, even though he was met with failure, repeatedly, from his youth, when he was plagued by acne and social isolation, to his twenties, when he found no professional success, to later in life, with a serious health scare.
Through all of this, he did nothing but try, so why would he advise others to not do the same?
“Too many writers write for the wrong reasons,” declared Bukowski. “They want to get famous or they want to get rich or they want to get laid by the girls with the bluebells in their hair… When everything goes best, it’s not because you chose writing, but because writing chose you.” Bukowski didn’t decide to be a writer; nobody actually dedicated to a pursuit ever had to decide which pursuit it would be.
“We work too hard. We try too hard,” Bukowski writes, “Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. Looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb.” He may have meant, as the video’s narrator puts it, that “if you have to try to try, if you have to try to care about something or have to try to want something, perhaps you don’t care about it, and perhaps you don’t want it.” And “if the thought of not doing the thing hurts more than the thought of potentially suffering through the process, if the thought of a life without it or never having tried it at all terrifies you, if it comes to you, through you, out of you, almost as if you’re not trying, perhaps Bukowski might say here, try, and ‘if you’re going to try, go all the way.’”
Bukowski never tried, he just followed his impulse. To try, means to make an attempt to change your state of nature. The person, who is by temperament, artistic and creative, and yet devotes his life to number-crunching is someone who is trying. But Bukowski, and artists like him, do not try to be who they are.
It is hard, to take heart from this story, because while it is great that someone who had such a difficult life finally got recognition, it is clear that as practical advise, one who follows their instinct or passion may never achieve such success. Indeed, a talent like Bukowski, almost didn’t. One must imagine the countless other writers and artists who live their lives trying to be successful in their craft and failing, and in the end, with very little to show for it.
And herein lies, I think, the deeper message. And it is one that will only be accepted reluctantly. It is not your choice. If you have a proclivity for writing, there is nothing you can do to stop yourself from writing, regardless of whether you are successful or not at it. And if you do not have a natural proclivity for it, then no matter how much you try, it will not stick. At some point, you will grow weary and stop writing altogether. So the real message here is not as much, “don’t try”, as it is “don’t worry.” That is, don’t worry about any choice you would have to make, because the choice is made for you. That is what he means when he says, “writing chooses you” and not the other way around.
If you are meant to write, you cannot stop yourself. Somehow, you will and there is very little you can do about it. The urge is deeper than what your narrow conscious attention can control. And if you were not meant to write, you should not worry, because soon enough, you will discover the truth about yourself.