Charles Bukowski on writing what you know

Here’s a good question:

“why don’t you write a novel about all
that?” I asked her.
“Hank,” she answered, “you’re just a
cynical old drunk and a son-of-a-bitch.
no wonder your stuff sounds like it was
written in a cesspool.

the next novel she wrote had a cynical
old drunk in it who thought he could write but he
couldn’t really write at all, he just wrote shit
which appealed somehow to the mundane appetite
of the masses.
— “novels,” by Charles Bukowski


Writers are often told to write what they know, but then you’ve got the divide between those who think nobody should write what they know (because what they know is shit), and those who think you should write nothing but what you know (because they’ve got no imagination whatsoever). I would have to agree with Bukowski that if you’re writing novels about nothing, and your life is more exciting than your life’s work, you should probably write about your damn life already.

But then there are the people who write about nothing but their own lives, who get into the navel-gazing, who-the-hell-cares? territory. There’s nothing worse than the ramblings of a writer who doesn’t know he or she is boring everybody to tears (see: all Bukowski’s poems about going to the track).

There’s also a difference between making the personal universal and simply airing your dirty laundry. For instance: there’s a guy I know who fancies himself a writer, kind of like the chick in this Bukowski poem. He thinks writing about his ex-girlfriends is a great way to make money and get laughs. He thinks he’s talented and funny, because he writes about “something real,” even though he’s just, metaphorically, holding up other people’s underwear and sniffing them in public. Some may say I’m just jealous of his “success,” but is it really success to be a big fish in an extremely small pond? And for people to label your pond a cesspool?

In Bukowski’s defense, I don’t think everything he wrote sounds like it was “written in a cesspool.” A lot of it surely came from muck and mire, but it had heart. He was a sensitive human being, underneath it all. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:

if you want to piss on the sun
go ahead
but please leave the good women
— “a poem for swingers”

Certainly, this poem demonstrates more than just morbid obsession with women, fucking them, and writing about them afterwards in order to humiliate them—which is basically what the guy I mentioned above does with his work. Bukowski may write unpleasant things about these women, too, but mostly because he is documenting his own failures. He is the ultimate butt of the joke, not all the women who dared to sleep with him.

So, should you write what you know? Yes, but remember a few things:

  1. You still have to edit what you write—even if you’re Mr. Charles Bukowski himself.
  2. It’s called fiction, so remember to make something up now and then.
  3. Writing about all the people you’ve slept with, using thinly-veiled pseudonyms, is self-indulgent—not to mention an invitation to a lawsuit; try to find material that other people can connect with on a more personal level.

P.S. All material excerpted in this entry comes from Charles Bukowski’s book of poetry, Open All Night: New Poems.