“How to” Will Never Create Art

On Writing 2“It’s only when a man gets to the point of a gun in his mouth that he can see the whole world inside of his head. Anything else is conjecture, conjecture and bullshit and pamphlets.”

Welcome back, Charles Bukowski.

The “poet laureate of L.A. low-life” doesn’t pull punches, nor should any writer, or what’s the point? The status quo is a lie, so what’s the point of writing if not to serve as a gun in our collective mouth to wake us up?

Go, Reece, go!

But after reading Bukowski’s posthumous collection of correspondence, On Writing, I’m feeling as wimpish and mealy-mouthed and prevaricating as the worst literary poseur.

This isn’t a good time to lose my confidence. In two weeks I relaunch my writing course, Don’t Get it Right, Get it Written. Yes, I’ll encourage my students to “write reckless,” but no doubt I’ll recommend some rules, even as I infect them with such Bukowski-isms as:

“If I were to write a play I’d write it any damn way I pleased and it would come out all right.”

So, you see the bind I’m putting myself in.

But it’s exciting, isn’t it?

However, to write any damn way you please, you better be a Bukowski, and by that I mean ruthlessly honest, shameless, talented, drunk, living in a flop house, can’t hold a job and have nothing to lose.

Bukowski portraitHere’s Bukowski further undermining my teaching plan:

It makes me nervous to read those articles on playwriting, “A play must have a premise” and so forth. I am afraid that the problems of our playwrights … is they are TOLD the proper way to do a thing. This may make it go down well, it can help practitioners; it can help bad playwrights become almost good ones, but “how to do it” will never create an Art. It will never shake the old skin, it will never get us out of here.

Here’s where Bukowski helps me out—a good story is all about getting out of here.

Who doesn’t want to get out of here?

How a writer helps their protagonist escape—how a fictional hero escapes his old skin—that’s what we’ll discover in this six-week course. But never mind fiction for a moment, and never mind Art, it’s every person’s responsibility to get out of here. So here’s the kicker—

By aiding and abetting freedom for our fictional characters, we writers do it also for ourselves. (This course is sounding deeper by the minute.)

Bukowski reminds me how trapped I am within the prison of the human condition. And by ‘human condition’ I mean “culture” cluttering up the inside of the head, all the conventional wisdom and status quo, all the lies and beliefs that prevent us from achieving our greatest happiness.

Who doesn’t want to get out of here?

Fortunately, I’ve devised a super-simple overview of how good stories play out in response to this profound dissatisfaction. The hero, desperately seeking freedom (in one of its many forms), is driven to the brink of stripping off his old skin. It’s painful; it looks like a kind of death.

SS2D4 new coverHere’s what it looks like on the cover of my eBook, Story Structure to Die For.

He’s falling, dying, in a manner of speaking. That’s right, you’ve heard it here ad nauseam, “The hero must die.”

Perhaps that’s why I’ve long found Charles Bukowski so compelling. Often drunk and sick and contemplating suicide in his $5-a-week skid row flop house, he strikes me as someone living perpetually on the verge of checking out of here.

Before Bukowski actually did die in 1993, he was good enough to leave me with this:

This is not to say there shouldn’t be articles on playwriting or playwriting workshops. I wouldn’t outlaw anything. Let the people do as they please. And luck to them.

Thanks, Chuck.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Be Sociable, Share!


  1. says

    Very much appreciating this fresh slap in the face from “Chuck” this morning. Just what I needed to start my already planned out day in prison. It’s a never-ending battle. Freedom very often seems to center around what I refrain from doing, willingly to sit patiently in the void that is created and wait for true direction, than it is finding some better “how to” instructions. Thanks PJ

  2. says

    I was hearing/listening to too much from others who were telling me the “proper way of doing things” and I my creative spirit went into a coma over the last couple of months. It rendered me silent.

    I’m about to start writing a piece about that very thing, starting with a quote from Tina Fey: “When people say, “You really, really must” do something, it means you don’t really have to. No one ever says, “You really, really must deliver the baby during labor.” When it’s true, it doesn’t need to be said.”

    Not that there isn’t room for “how to” … it just has it’s place, and that’s not in the bedroom of my mind.

  3. says

    Thanks, Rick… What an instructor ought to do is say, “Okay, if you follow my ‘how to’ rules, then I’m to blame for what happens with your novel. Blame me! What that might do is free the student to write without responsibility or guilt, to write with some degree of abandon, which is what we want the student to do in the first place. Wow, it’s complicated.

  4. says

    T.O.W… I like what I think is the crux of Bukowski’s comment, which is that Art won’t arise unless the artist is largely unfettered. And it’s becoming harder and harder to remain unfettered if we expose ourselves to too much ‘how to.’ You’re right, it has its place, now to find the balance. Good to hear from you, Tracy.

  5. says

    Beautiful. I know that word is drearily over-used, but in this case it really fits. I loved this piece, a welcome return by you, PJ. Thank you for returning! We’re your humble students, too, you know!

    The course you’ve been so busy preparing is sure to be amazing.

    Your blog post today got me thinking even further on the subject of “story.” The other night, I was inflamed with righteous indignation upon hearing a speech entitled, “What is a Story?” in which the speaker essentially told us that a good ending was important to a good story.

    I went home and thought, that’s not all there is to a story! Who’s he kidding? I can’t let him get away with this. So, I made a spontaneous decision to put aside the speech I’d been preparing for Toastmasters. And, I wrote a speech, titled, ‘What is a Story? 2’ instead, which I delivered yesterday. My riposte. I’m conjugating a blog post about it, as we speak, actually, thinking about the whole experience and sharing the transcript from the speech.

    So, imagine my delight when I read here, Bukowski’s quote ‘It will never shake the old skin, it will never get us out of here.’ This is what I spoke about or touched on, also. ‘The sandpaper touch of art,’ as Jane Yolen said, of fiction, ‘we remember the readings that acted like transformations,’ as Kate de Goldi said. You’ve stepped even further into the subject though, which is brilliant. Thank you for the reminder!


    p.s. I posted a book to you two days ago. If you see nothing in your postbox two weeks from now, can you let me know? I’ll send you another one. :-) Cheers, man!

  6. says

    T.O… No link — because this is not an online course, rather in the flesh, six Tuesday evenings in the local ‘Arts Building’ beside the library here in the small picturesque village of Gibsons on the shores of the Salish Sea in British Columbia. But thank you anyway!

  7. says

    Yvette… I’m looking forward to your blog re “What is a story?” My course will begin with that very question — and serve as the goal for the entire course. Because isn’t that really all we need to know heading into the writing of one. Regarding that ‘ending,’ I look at it this way — if you were telling the story to a child, they should know that the story is over. So, what does a child need to know to satisfy them that it’s over? Hey — maybe this is a blog idea. If you don’t cover it off in your post, I’ll go at ‘er. Cheers to you, Y.C.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *