"On Writing" by Charles Bukowski

Books ‘on writing‘ are a dime a dozen, especially books on writing by famous authors and poets. I’ve read many of them over the course of time and I find a lot of them interesting. The problem with many of these books are that they only reveal that one particular author’s working methods. Perhaps they offer some insight to a writer who is just beginning, or even the seasoned veteran, or even perhaps someone who is intrigued by their favorite author’s approach, but for the most part, they tend to be very subjective.


The irony of this is that Bukowski, in many of these collected letters, had much disdain about the idea of “teaching writing” and more than one of these letters he makes his feelings well known. What separates this book from the rest of the pack is that Bukowski offers absolutely no specifics on the art of writing. Instead what you have here are a collection of letters to various writers, publishers, fans, etc about his thoughts on writing, his favorite authors, favorite books, and the occasional rant on what he hates about the insular world of literature. Not that these letters can’t offer any insight to the burgeoning writer. Taken as a whole, the message is a positive one: do your own thing and don’t get mixed up with the literary crowd. The best way to learn how to write is to sit down and write.


Ranging from the 1940s to shortly before his death, there are some gems here, letters to Henry Miller, John Fante, Harold Norse, and others; they are full of the Bukowski wit and many of these letters showcase how great a writer he actually was. Bukowski considered correspondence as an equal to his poems, novels and short stories and none of these letters are tossed off missives but written with care and as much thought as his other writing.


There are some wonderful insights to take away from this, regardless of the fact that he offers absolutely no advice on technique. It’s all about his approach, what drove him to write and why one should be writing. He also shines a light on the insular and incestuous nature of the so-called “literary world”. It is interesting to note, for instance, that he claims to have only made $47 in his first 20 years as a writer. Fans of Bukowski will love this. For me, the book brought me back to a time and place and has inspired me to again perhaps “throw my hat into the ring” with regard to writing poetry (which I haven’t done in years).


Taken together, it is a celebration for those who are compelled to put down the word. Bukowski, no matter what you think of his work, was one of those rare writers who actually loved writing for the sake of writing. Fame and celebrity (which would come later) meant nothing to him. What was most important to him was sitting down and getting it down — and in his own way. For that a lone, this collection is wort the read for every writer, aspiring or otherwise. As a long time fan of his work, I couldn’t get enough of it. I think it would do a lot of today’s writers a lot of good. It dispenses with all that is least important and zeroes in on what one should focus on more than anything else: the work. Highly recommended.

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