I’m Not Bukowski November 6, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Dancing Bear, New Orleans, NOLA, The Narrative, Toulouse Street, Writing.
Tags: Charles Bukowski, Ray in Exile
“I’m not Bukowski,” Ray said the other day and, no, he’s not. He’s sober, for one thing, and certainly a better writer for it. We are both about as unlike Bukowski as possible: worrying about raising the kids, shuffling the litter of bills on the counter, lumbering into work when we’d rather be reading or writing. Bukowski is an idol but not for his life. Perhaps he had to live the way he did–the booze, the whores in cheap rooms–to get to those poems and stories but what is important is not if he was fond of slutty redheads or the brand of cheap drug store cigar he smoked but the words.
We envy those words and I think we envy his freedom if not his choices, the freedom to do what he damn well pleased and to chose above all to write. The rest of his life is just background and material, no more important than the polite coughing and murmurs on an old recording just before the conductor strikes his baton. I know I envy that freedom, a willingness to ignore the landlord pounding at the door demanding his greenbacks and focus on what matters, the sheet of paper in front of you. Perhaps more importantly I envy his decision at age 49 to walk away from his job and just write: “I have one of two choices — stay in the post office and go crazy … or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”
I’ve been reading a wonderful book of stories by a woman I found on the Internet who happens to live just a dozen blocks away. She’s a graduate of the local university’s writing program and I wonder how to structure my life so I could mostly write, how I could get into a writing program with only most of a degree in Eng. Lit. but there’s kids on the cusp of college, a newly refinanced mortgage, a job that pays for it all but demands monkish devotion. Reading and seeing Stephen Elliot got me thinking about Stegner Fellowships and then I picked up a book of stories the other day by a former lawyer from Baton Rouge, himself a midlife Stegner Fellow. But I don’t see how to do that. Ray and Sam and I were having a merry time in a string of emails the other day, discussing applying together for the local school’s summer fellowship: one of us each in fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry, and escaping to Italy for the summer to write but it won’t happen. Ray and I at least have obligations to our families and to the mortgage bank that keep us planted.
We’re not in the M.F.A. program but in our own class. In our forties and fifties, with a few things published, struggling to get to the next level of writing and recognition. We are at the point a lot of writers are in their twenties in terms of trajectory but we’re not twenty-two anymore. We’re on our own with day jobs and busy lives trying to swim upstream against the flood of writing program graduates. If you try to mine your own life there are things that would come out easily as thinly veiled roman à clef at twenty that we have to hide inside carefully constructed fictions, or simply scribble on manuscripts that never see the light of day. I think we’re more critical of ourselves because we’re older, and because we know we don’t have the M.F.A. staff and colleagues hovering over us to help us along. And somewhere in the background is a noisy dime store windup clock furiously ticking, shiny pot metal bells poised to ring. Ask not and all that rot; keep typing.
Rereading Ray’s recently revived blog, and the old post’s he is pulling out of storage, I consider that someday, some kid writer will look at the book jacket photo of this guy astride a motorcycle covered with tats and say, “Damn, I’m not Shea.” It’s not impossible; merely difficult, but we’re driven to do it and so it’s possible. I spent last night trying to pick some things off the blog to supplement my book reading Saturday and there’s some decent stuff here, better I think than some of what’s in the book. People occasionally tell me this, and so even though I haven’t earned enough off of Google referrals from these sites to buy a used paperback copy of Post Office and the book over there on your right should break even about the time I die, I keep going.
People who write, even cockroach bloggers like me lurking under the kick boards of literature, mostly don’t do it for the money. My wife asks when I’m going to write her a best seller we can retire on and I have to remind her the kids shooting hoops at the school up the street have a better chance at the NBA than I have at that, and that’s not what I want to do anyway. I just have a story I have to tell, something banging on my skull demanding to come out, something that arrives most easily in small autobiographical bits and not at novel length. And so I write it down here on the blog or on manuscripts with no clear path forward, at least none that takes me past this paragraph, but it beats the hell out of sitting alone in bars telling it to people who are only as attentive as they are drunk.