ON WRITING — a collection of Charles Bukowski’s letters on the writing life — is filled with hilarious, obscene, and at times heartbreakingly sad musings and thoughts to his friends, publishers, agent, editors, and assorted others.
I don’t entirely want art […] I want entertainment, first. I want to forget. I want a buzzing, some shouting among the wine-dizzy chandeliers. I want. I mean, if we can work art in after, we become interested, fine. But let’s not get holy, tra la, tra la.
Bukowski would probably consider this volume, published posthumously to make an easy nickel from his name as if he intended the letters for public consumption, part of the money-first problem with modern publishing.
The correspondence chronologically tracks Bukowski’s transition from writing poetry to fiction, and his slow stylistic climb to the Bukowski of Women and Post Office. His passion for the work, and his absolute need to write seeps through on every page. The letters at times flit between outrage and tenderness, mocking bite and true sadness, often in the passage of only a few sentences.
“Talent without durability is a god damned crime,” he begins, in a letter to the editors of the Colorado North Review, on September 15, 1990.
It means they went to the soft trap, it means they believed the praise, it means they settled short. A writer is not a writer because he has written some books. A writer is not a writer because he teaches literature. A writer is only a writer if he can write now, tonight, this minute. We have too many x-writers who type. Books fall from my hand to the floor. They are total crap. I think we have just blown away half a century to the stinking winds.
Perhaps my favorite letter in the collection is from Bukowski to a young poet, Steve Richmond, December 24, 1972. “[…] you’ve got your right to criticize me,” Bukowski says.
[…] and much of it is probably correct, but one thing you’re going to learn, finally, I feel is that creation is not photography or necessarily standard truth. creation carries its own truth or lie and only the years can name which it is […] I think sometimes we can become too holy and therefore, caged.
I believe that you will find your publisher some day, and perhaps the later that comes the better it will be for you.
There is, Bukowski knew, an inimitable world between aspiration and success, a time to rage against the man, and a time to soften the blow.
The Bukowski volume is part of a trend. Each month, it seems, a dozen new books about writing are published: how-to, memoir, grammar manuals, and those — like Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy by Dinty Moore — that present themselves as all of the above. The business of selling the writing life is alive and thriving. How else, it seems, would publishers continue printing so many of these types of books?
Dinty Moore is well known among the tight-knit Lit Journal writing community as one of the good guys — a generous, kind, and thoughtful teacher. Unfortunately, however, in this most recent offering, Moore fails to provide a dazzling collection.
The premise of Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy — a kind of take off of Cheryl Strayed’s popular Dear Sugar advice column — is that, using questions posed by famous (and less famous) writers about the craft, ethics, and grammar of writing essays, Mr. Moore responds, first in a letter to the questioner from “Mister Essay Writer Guy,” and then with one of his own essays, as a way to tackle the issue or demonstrate an example.
In the first question, noted essayist Phillip Lopate asks, “I am curious how you deal honestly with male-female relations in general and specifically your past girlfriends on the page without coming off as a male chauvinist pig.”
Lopate, however, needs no advice from Moore. He’s the author of many original and classic essays, not to mention two of the best books on writing I’ve ever read: To Show and Tell, and his comprehensive anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay. In other words, he is a truly great essayist who has also written about genre and craft. The same could be said for many of the writers who have contributed questions here, among them Roxane Gay and David Shields. Perhaps that’s what irked me so — the back-slappy nature of these writers tossing each other underhanded softballs.
Moore is a comedic writer who specializes in flash nonfiction, like the work in the literary magazine he edits, Brevity. Of course the elements that make a great longform essay are requisite to short forms as well: surprise and original thought. Yet in the essay in response to Lopate’s query, Moore concludes this way: “To be honest, I’m not precisely sure if we grow wiser when we age or just begin to see more clearly how ridiculous we were in our youth.”
The book has many similar observations and conclusions that fell flat for me. Too often Moore relies on using himself as the butt of his jokes. When it works, the essays are thoroughly funny, as in “Have You Learned Your Lesson, Amigo?” about a trip Moore took to Spain where he is brilliantly robbed on the Paseo de Recoletas by two expert con artists. “I like this city more and more,” he writes, “especially now that I have been reassured the Madrid police are out on the tourist walkways, unseen and stealthy, guarding us from all sorts of thieves and scammers.” Moore has just been robbed by this man pretending to be a police officer. The image is subtle, the tone here just right.
But when Moore tries to use new forms, as in the essay “Why I Trained My Dog to Post,” written in Facebook posts and comments, I squirmed. It felt like a series of half-jokes without any true experience or reason. One can make this sort of essay work, of course, but Moore’s attempt didn’t feel truly realized.
In another letter, author Julianna Baggott peppers Moore with interesting questions (and silly ones as well): “Why does the history of writers seem to include so much alcoholism? […] is it necessary? […] If I simply bought packets of cocktail napkins from a party supply store and jotted ideas at my kitchen table, would my writing still have that je ne sais quoi, as the French say?”
Moore responds with an essay written on cocktail napkins. On the fifth napkin he asks, “But can one write an essay on a cocktail napkin?”
Of course one can, but that isn’t quite the point.
All this begs a question: Who is Moore’s intended audience? And another: Is this meant to be a book of humor or a book about writing?
I assume the truth is that Moore was looking for a light-hearted way to package assorted short essays with little in common. But the gimmick quickly exhausted me. And in trying to be a book that does everything, appeals to everyone, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy fails to provide enough value to its readers.
There is a book I’ve carried with me across the globe, a book that I can open at any page to remind myself why I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to punching the keys, scribbling on the blank page with some reckless hope of capturing the inimitable texture of life: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.
Dillard writes beautiful, mysterious prose, and The Writing Life is as much about living life as it is about writing. She is blunt about the reality, the bleak loneliness some must ascribe to in order to create. “It should surprise no one that the life of the writer — such as it is — is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation.”
Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. This explains why so many books describe the author’s childhood. A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience.
Writers know that reading beautiful sentences — unwinding the mysterious string of their structure — is by far the best way to learn about craft. There is a pleasure in reading Dillard that far surpasses the nuts and bolts, how-the-sausage-is-made, theory and example style of writing guides. “Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know,” Dillard says in a chapter in which she muses about finishing a book on a small island off the Washington coast. And her answer:
The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.