“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you/ in spite of everything, / don’t do it.” –Charles Bukowski, “so you want to be a writer?”
His whole poem is *bursting* with little gems like this one — a lot of reasons not to be a writer. My students love it because they immediately latch on to the “don’t do it” part. I gently explain to them that he is talking about being a writer, not writing an assignment for a class. (Two very, very different things.)
I have to say, I enjoy a little Bukowski sentiment in my life occasionally. His self-righteous, smug nonchalance feeds my own privileged, first-world ego. So what if writing doesn’t burst out of me. I have the privilege to write. Or not write. (Also I don’t write for money. Or
fame much of an audience — if your eyeballs are reading these words, WOW! And thanks! So I don’t write novels. So I don’t write for a living. A privilege it is, indeed, that I write whenever and however I want. I don’t have anything riding on it.)
But beyond the privilege element, I appreciate the organic nature of living — not forcing yourself to do certain jobs, to like certain things, to be certain ways. It also makes me seriously question the entire American schooling system — learning certain things, learning certain ways, learning at certain times, etc. I’m afraid that we’re gobbling and slurping the joy right out of it, all in the name of “knowing what’s/when’s/how’s best.” And while our motives are good — raise smart kids to go to good colleges to get good jobs to “make a difference in our world” — I think the foie gras approach is maybe not the best. Students are stressed and tired, anxiety issues are at an all-time high, and rarely do students get to explore what they are naturally curious about.
If, as a teacher, I rigidly stuck to the curriculum all year every year, I would . . . maybe die. And if not death, certainly I would become a rule-following robot simply beeping out the lesson of the day. The beauty of a school with flesh-and-blood humans as teachers is that we’re just that: humans. We have complex minds that stray from the curriculum when need be.
Sometimes when we stray from talking about enjambment
in a poem, time frees up to talk about how we don’t know who we are
Recently, I had a student fill out an evaluation on me and my class, and she wrote that sometimes I and the students go off on tangents and that we should stick to the topic. And while I agree that a certain knowledge base should be taught in a class that is preparing for an AP exam in May, some of the “tangents” we have I’d argue aren’t even tangents at all. When a poem makes you look inward, it’s not a tangent. When a novel makes you question why you’re sitting in a desk surrounded by four walls, it’s not a tangent. When I tell the students a story of a caller to a radio show arguing about the placement of a “deer crossing” sign because it’s a dangerous place for deer to cross, it’s a tangent. But sometimes our brains need a break and we need to laugh and we need to be reminded of our humanness.
I don’t know why, but sometimes stories like Donna and the Deer Crossing Signs come bursting out of me.
The problem is when we’re in situations or jobs that allow us no “bursting” freedom. If you feel like that’s you, my privileged self would tell you to leave! Change your situation! Quit, and get a different job! I know enough about my blog audience to know that you’re probably set up well enough to do it.
So do it already.
I might rewrite Bukowski’s poem to expand it beyond being a writer — and take a slightly different approach:
“so you want to be a rule-following robot”
if you want life and vitality to come bursting out of you
in spite of everyone telling you how to live
don’t be it.
if you don’t want to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
don’t be it.
if you want to think
and have opinions
don’t be it.
if you want joy
and belly laughs(-till-you-cry),
don’t be it.
don’t be like so many robots,
don’t be like so many thousands of
robots who call themselves humans,
don’t be dull and boring and
the statisticians of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your robot number.
don’t add to that.
don’t be it.
if you can see the sunrise
and be flooded with possibilities
and be overwhelmed with beauty
and be overcome by life itself
to the point of a tear forming in the
corner of your eye,
then you’ll be a human, my friend.
I think my disdain for rule-following robots is clear, but I wonder what Bukowski would say about them. I think he might believe that following rules at all is bad. And this is where we’d differ. There are plenty of rules I follow:
- For the most part, I follow the law. Do I occasionally speed or slow-slide through stop signs? Yes.
- When I play games, I am one to try to follow the rules. And I confess, I do get annoyed when people don’t want to follow the rules. Last year at my school’s gift exchange, we got to the very end, and the last person to go got her own gift. She declared that we should open the game back up so that she didn’t end up with the gift she brought. I was not in favor of this. But that’s what we did, and she got the gift she wanted (and took it away from someone who thought the game was over). It’s silly, I know, but it just seemed selfish to me. AND WE BROKE THE RULES.
- I minimally follow the rules at school. This means that if it’s a rule I think is dumb or busywork, I’ll probably follow it — but in the most minimal, least-amount-of-effort way. And will I still gripe? Yeah, probably. It’s something I need to work on, for sure.
- I have this fear of being reprimanded, so I try to follow general rules of social conduct when I’m out and about. This mostly means that I don’t let my boys climb up onto the shelves at BJ’s, disappear into the clothing racks at Marshall’s (Narnia, clearly), or push their kid-carts careening down the aisles of Trader Joe’s while other bug-eyed shoppers frantically swerve their carts and dive out of the way and into the frozen bags of asparagus risotto. I used to not let my kids sit in the large section of the cart because it’s against the rules (according to what’s written on the plastic piece on the baby seat, that is). Yeah, I just don’t care about that one anymore, mostly because I don’t think anyone else cares.
The point for me is to avoid being a robot. Know the rules before you break the rules. Be aware of the rules you do follow. Know why you follow them. Bukowski’s screw-it-all philosophy doesn’t quite work in the real world. But if we can find a balance between following rules (and conventions and norms) and being true to ourselves (and our motivations and our desires), that’s where the magic is.
So if being a writer means you wait until “it comes out of / your soul like a rocket,” we might be here awhile, waiting for your book to be published. But on the flip side, if you’re writing (or fill-in-the-blanking) just because you’re supposed to (or expected to) but really don’t enjoy it, do something else. Or change your mindset. Or change something.
Poems that have influenced my life (and this particular blog post):