Professor Wu's Rulebook

Rules? Where we’re going we don’t need rules. Charles Bukowski on writing and creative passion


“Write what you want. Write how you want. Write where you want, why you want, when you want, who you want. It’ll either work or it won’t. There’s no right way”, acclaimed Scottish author, Iain Maloney observed while lamenting the tendency to believe in perceived “rules” for writing.

Few writers are – or, indeed, have been – totally comfortable in breaking with perceived literary conventions. Yet one author to whom going one’s own way seemed to come natural was that great literary curator, Charles Bukowski (16th August 1920 – 9th March, 1994). A writer of strong opinions and undoubted skill, all of his writing – his poetry, his prose, and his correspondence – is electrified by an unapologetic and unique sense of aliveness.

Consider, for instance, his classic poem on writing and creativity – So, you want to be a writer? (Don’t do it). You can read the poem here, or watch it in the video below:

It’s difficult not to be struck by the passionate, frenetic energy Bukowski both writes with, and also argues is necessary for success in all creative pursuits. And this same energy and style seems to come so naturally to Buk, because it’s entirely of himself. You can see it on show again and again not only in his writing, but also in his thoughts – both typed and spoken.

For example, see this extract of a fantastic interview with the great man himself.

Consider his words, here: “when you write, your words must go like this: bim bim bim, bim bim bim; each line must be full of a delicious little juice, flavour – they must be full of power. They must make you want to turn a page – bim bim bim, bim bim bim.”

Writing well does not mean conforming to rules or paradigms. But about something more honest and real – more human and more passionate.

Bukowski establishes these thoughts in more detail in a 1959 letter to his friend Anthony Linick, arguing that the only thing of importance when it comes to writing (in this specific instance, writing poetry), is not what the poem is or what it does, but that it is – a notion that gets at the heart of all great art:

“I should think that many of our poets, the honest ones, will confess to having no manifesto. It is a painful confession but the art of poetry carries its own powers without having to break them down into critical listings. I do not mean that poetry should be raffish and irresponsible clown tossing off words into the void. But the very feeling of a good poem carries its own reason for being… Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese.”

And in a letter to another friend, he suggests that what really matters in writing is that the writer writes what they want to write: and not to let their writing be corrupted with what or how they think they should be writing:

“It’s when you begin to lie to yourself in a poem in order to simply make a poem, that you fail. That is why I do not rework poems but let them go at first sitting, because if I have lied originally there’s no use driving the spikes home, and if I haven’t lied, well hell, there’s nothing to worry about.”

Indeed, in another letter to Linick, Bukowski traces his style of writing back to a distaste for restrictive rules, even – or perhaps especially – those of grammar:

“I didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to grammar, and when I write it is for the love of the word, the color, like tossing paint on a canvas, and using a lot of ear and having read a bit here and there, I generally come out ok, but technically I don’t know what’s happening, nor do I care.”

And in another letter, he continues:

“I think some writers do suffer this fate mainly because at heart they are rebellious and the rules of grammar like many of the other rules of our world call for a herding in and a confirmation that the natural writer instinctively abhors, and, furthermore, his interest lies in the wider scope of subject and spirit… Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Saroyan were a few that reshaped the rules, especially in punctuation and sentence flow and breakdown. And, of course, James Joyce went even further. We are interested in color, shape, meaning, force… the pigments that point up the soul.”

Indeed, while Bukowski railed against manifestos and rules, he puts down – in a letter to the poet, novelist and film and television writer John William Corrington – what could be taken as a manifesto for all creative pursuits. Arguing that, in order to be a writer – or a photographer, or an artist – what matters is the courage to create something outside formulaic conventions:

“The sanctuary of the rule means nothing to the pure creator. There is an excuse for poor creation if we are dithered by camouflage or wine come down through staring eyes, but there isn’t any excuse for a creation crippled by directives of school and fashion, or the valetudinarian prayer book that says: form, form, form!! put it in a cage!

Let’s allow ourselves space and error, hysteria and grief. Let’s not round the edge until we have a ball that rolls neatly away like a trick. Things happen — the priest is shot in the john; hornets blow heroin without arrest; they take down your number; your wife runs off with an idiot who’s never read Kafka; the crushed cat, its guts glueing its skull to the pavement, is passed by traffic for hours; flowers grow in the smoke; children die at 9 and 97; flies are smashed from screens… the history of form is evident.


Really, we must let the candle burn—pour gasoline on it if necessary. The sense of the ordinary is always ordinary, but there are screams from windows too … an artistic hysteria engendered out of breathing in the necropolis … sometimes when the music stops and leaves us 4 walls of rubber or glass or stone, or worse — no walls at all — poor and freezing in the Atlanta of the heart. To concentrate on form and logic … seems imbecility in the midst of the madness…

Creation is our gift and we are ill with it. It has sloshed about my bones and awakened me to stare at 5 a.m. walls.”

So, if you’ve found yourself awakened with creativity sloshing in your bones and come to spend the early morning hours staring at walls – think of it as a good sign! And, if you want further inspiration from the mind of signor Bukowski, why not check out the letter he wrote explaining why aspiring writers should quit their soul sucking day jobs and pursue their creative passions.

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