Bukowski on Writing and the Horror of Wasted Lives
In 1990, four years before his death, the great Los Angeles poet Charles Bukowski was interviewed about his writing and about life in general. You can find the full interview in Charles Bukowski: Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews and Encounters 1963-1993, published by Sun Dog Press, 2003.
What is your writing attempting to explain?
Bukowski: I am not sure that I explain anything in my writing but I do feel better for having written it. To me, creation is just a reaction to existence. It’s almost, in a sense, a second look at life. Something happens, then there is a space, then often, if you are a writer, you rework that happening out in words. It doesn’t change or explain anything but in the trance of writing it down a rather elated feeling occurs, or a warmth, or a healing process, or all three and maybe some more things, depending. Mostly when I write something that works for me, I get a very high feeling of good luck. And even in purely inventive work, ultra fiction, it is all taken from basic actuality: something you saw, dreamt, thought or should’ve thought. Creation is one hell of a marvelous miracle, as long as it lasts.
Your writing is sometimes dark but I would never describe it as negative. How do you feel about what your mother once said, “People like to read things that make them happy?”
Bukowski: Well, if there is a darkness in my writing it is a darkness that is trying to work into the light or if I can’t make it into the light it is a darkness that lives somehow and anyhow within and against all odds. Just for the hell of it.
About my mother, well, she never had much of a chance, she believed everything she had been told or taught and she never stumbled upon any counter-sources to pull her out of that. Of course, maybe she didn’t have the will or the spirit to escape the obvious. She might have been simple-minded. I remember hearing throughout my childhood: “Smile, Henry, be happy.” I mean, she actually thought that if I smiled I would be happy. And that I should write big smiling stories. All caused by the fact that as a young man I had written some things and hidden them in a dresser drawer. My father found them and the shit flew. “NOBODY IS EVER GOING TO WANT TO READ CRAP LIKE THIS!” And he was almost right. I didn’t have very much luck until I was 50 years old. His only memory of me was of a guy who lived in cheap rooms and drank with crazy women.
You once said, “You’ve got to be large…You’ve got to be able to make some mistakes while you play in a game you can never win anyhow.” If you take this out of the context of writers and apply it to the masses, what does it mean?
Bukowski: If you apply it to the masses you are going to have chaos. It means they aren’t going to accept the eight-hour job, the payments on the car, the TV programs, the movies, saving to send Jimmy to college, all the sundry dumb things they do, you are going to have bank holdups galore, the White House on fire, empty churches, streets full of drunks and on and on… The masses can’t be large. They make mistakes but they are all mistakes. The masses can’t get out, they don’t want to, just paying off a credit card bill is one of their greatest victories. You can’t blame the masses too much, they have few alternatives. It takes a truly daring inventive soul to break free.
Another question like the previous one… “This is our time on earth. Why pull up and play it short?” Could you explain what you mean?
Bukowski: When a man plays it short, he doesn’t look so good, act so good, he doesn’t even walk right. Most people are dead long before they are buried, that’s why funerals are so sad. Most people quit too easy, they accept the short end, they compete for small prizes and become small. I don’t expect everybody to be a genius but I never guessed that so many would rush to idiocy with such aplomb.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Have you ever been to Disneyland?
Bukowski: Disneyland? I would never pay admission to go to hell.
Is there something or somebody out there that most people have missed? For those who don’t believe in god, life can be a horrific experience. Do you still have hope, or have you given up, cashed in your chips? If there’s nothing out there to take away the crap, how do we achieve some sense of meaning or happiness in life?
Bukowski: Most people have missed everything, the fine paintings, the good books, the great classical symphonies. They believe that survival consists of commercial success. And those who believe in a standard God are the ones who are having the horrific experience. Their minds are filled with thousands of years of garbage. They buy the standard.
We face the factors of life as they are.
If we get kicked in the ass we don’t figure that it’s God‘s will. Or if we do something exceptional we don’t give credit to the Above. We use our minds which are free of standard concepts and beliefs. We are fortunate ones. As for death, I’m ready for death, I will face it on my terms as I have attempted to live my life. Happiness and meaning in life are not constraints but I do believe at times we can have both if we can arrange to sometimes do what we want to do, what we truly feel like doing instead of following preset rules. It’s all quite simple and worth fighting for. Those who bow before false ways and false gods garner the confusion and the horror of wasted lives.
How would you like to be remembered?
Bukowski: Would not like to be. After death vanity has no place and before, it is an illness of the spirit.
“Charles Bukowski,” Portfolio, David Andreone and David Bridson, October/Novermber 1990, pp.16-19