Charles Bukowski: the Most Important Lesson for Aspiring Creatives

“Don’t try.”

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Charles Bukowski was an American-German author, a poet known for his crude and often raw take on life and its misfortunes. As the son of an immigrant (whom he got often beaten by), Charles came to America in the mid 20th century. He didn’t find any creative success until his fifties, often changing blue-collar jobs such as working at the post office.

Eventually, though, he did — which is why I am writing about him now.

When he died in 1994, his tombstone has been engraved with a phrase that explains his life philosophy.

It says simply,

“Don’t try.”

How can a man who has struggled so much to find creative success say such a thing? It’s easy to misunderstand this phrase as “become a slacker” or “be lazy, and success will come.”

But Bukowski himself is an example of the contrary: success comes to those who work.

In a letter to his friend, publisher, and writer William Packard, Bukowski writes,

“We work too hard. We try too hard. Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. It’s been looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb.

There’s been too much direction. It’s all free, we needn’t be told. Classes? Classes are for asses. Writing a poem is as easy as beating your meat or drinking a bottle of beer.”

We’re often told that creative success — or any success, for that matter — comes to those who work 14 hours per day, but true success is about finding what comes naturally to you.

In a 7-minute animated video that brilliantly explains Bukowski’s life story and philosophy, the narrator compares finding your vocation with choosing a favorite color.

Choosing a favorite color is easy because the stakes are high. They are might higher in choosing something as important as “our job” or “career” or, even, “a calling.”

Explaining Bukowski’s philosophy, the narrator says,

“If you need to try to try [doing something], perhaps you don’t care about it as much. Perhaps it’s not your favorite color.”

Perhaps, what Bukowski meant was that we should be natural. Follow our urges. Not come up with too many formats, but do what feels right — that will be the most creative thing you can do.

If you’re the Type-A disciplined sort of person as I am, there might be a voice in your head right now saying, “You mean to let go of all discipline and pushing yourself?”

The answer is yes. Let it come naturally.

As disciplined as I am, I do nothing to push myself to write down my thoughts. Yet, people are amazed at how my brain works and my obsession with writing down every idea (to share it the next morning with my readers!).

There is an essential lesson for creative people hidden in Bukowski’s two-word tombstone engraving.

What reads as “don’t try” should be read as:

Just do it the way it feels natural to you. And don’t try to be someone you are not. Do it how it feels natural — and do it for a long time, for years, decades even. Without forcing it — no discipline. Without overthinking it — fewer rules. And without ulterior motives — like making money or growing a following.

Don’t try — do.

“And if you’re going to try,” said Bukowski, “go all the way.”

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