On Writing | Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski, one of America’s best known contemporary writers of poetry and prose has been dead for twenty two years now but this isn’t stopping more of his work from being published. ON WRITING is a collection of his letters and ramblings (basically) on writing so who better to review this one than Salty Popcorn’s own resident author, Kernel Morgan. Morgan sifted through the pages of babble to find some joy in the newly published thoughts of the great Bukowski. ON WRITING is out now from the fine folks at Allen and Unwin Publishers, they also have just released his ON CATS thoughts which I have in my pile to review. The book should be available in most bookstores or you can obtain it HERE. Enjoy Morgan’s review below……all the best…..JK.


On Writing Charles Bukowski Book Cover image



ON WRITING by Charles Bukowski is a chameleon of a book. The cover and the jacket description make it look like a self-help book on the craft of writing, conceived and written by Charles Bukowski. Bukowski died in 1994, he would have been 95 years old this year, but it seems a publishing trend of late to release long lost manuscript, so I’m sure it will catch a few people out who order online without skimming through the content. What this book actually is, is an editor curated collection of unpublished personal letters. So technically all the writing is by Charles Bukowski, but in the form of long rambling private thoughts not intended for publication.

Charles Bukowski was a subversive underground German-American poet from the 1970s and 1980s. He has a cult following. The FBI kept a file on him because of the content of his column NOTES OF A DIRTY OLD MAN in the publication OPEN CITY. He wrote about the the ordinary lives of poor Americans, the drudgery of work, alcoholism, women, and the perils of being a poet. He published novels – including POST OFFICE, WOMEN, and HAM ON RYE – and short stories, and wrote screenplays that were developed into films (TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS, BARFLY, FACTORUM, and CRAZY LOVE). Mickey Rourke and Matt Dillon have played Charles Bukowski’s alcoholic autobiographical character Henry (Hank) Chinaski. David Duchovny’s character Hank Moody on the TV show CALIFORNICATION is thought to be partly inspired by Charles Bukowski.

The title ON WRITING will inevitably draw comparisons with Stephen King’s ON WRITING – A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT, a practical masterclass outlining tools and techniques for aspiring authors, due to having the same name. There is very little practical advice in Bukowski’s ON WRITING. He makes wry observations about poets and poetry here and there, but it is not instructions. The thought of Bukowski actually writing a book of instructions goes against his whole anti-authoritarian persona. A devoted fan would probably cringe at the idea. In bookstore displays the book will likely sit beside the other books from this Bukowski series, ON CATS, and ON LOVE, so the idea of an assemblage of quotes will be more recognisable.


charles bukowski find what you love quote image


There are some gems hidden among the reams of transcribed text – and the feature of drawings and doodles that decorated Bukowski’s handwritten letters scattered within the pages – but you have to be very patient to get to them:

  • “[about Hemingway] There weren’t so many writers then. Or magazines. Or books. Or things. Now there are hundreds of thousands of writers and thousands of lit mags and many publishers and many critics, but mainly, hundreds of thousands of writers. Say you call a plumber nowadays. He’ll come over with his pipe wrench in one hand, his plunger in the other and a chapbook of his selected madrigals in one of his asshole pockets. Even see a kangaroo in the zoo, he’ll eye you and then pull a sheath of poems from his pouch, typeritten, single-spaced on waterproof eight and one half by eleven.”


  • “Let me state, that my distaste is for Humanity and especially, the creative writer. This is not only the age of Hydrogen doom, it is also the age of Fear, Immense Fear. I don’t like Whitey either. And I am Whitey.”


  • “[about quitting his job] My whole body was in pain, could no longer lift my arms. If somebody touched me, just that touch would send reams and shots of agony through me. I was finished. They had beat on my body and mind for decades. And I didn’t have a dime. I had to drink it away to free my mind from what was occurring. I decided that I would be better off on skid row. I mean that. It had come to a faltering end.”


  • “I’d much rather prefer to write from a happy state of mind […] I don’t believe in pain as a pusher of art.”


  • “[about poetry] The stale pretensiveness of it has bothered me for decades […] It seems like everybody’s preening, putting-on, burning on too low a flame or none at all, making it pretty, making it delicate”


  • “A good tight poem can happen but it comes along while you are working on something else. I know I write some crap but by letting go, banging the drums, there’s a juicy freedom in that.”


The editor of this collection of letters, Abel Debritto (author of CHARLES BUKOWSKI, KING OF THE UNDERGROUND), gives an opening editor’s note and a closing afterword, in which he reveals he went over some two thousand pages of unpublished correspondence to come up with this “crystal-clear snapshot of Bukowski’s mood” and says Bukowski’s voice “comes ringing through in its full first-person glory”. This is very lightly edited compared to something like ERNEST HEMINGWAY ON WRITING by Larry W. Phillips, in which the by-line was more correctly attributed to the editor.


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Chris Cornell once said: “Poets who I have gone back to often are Charles Bukowski, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, and Jim Carroll,” and to me Cornell’s lyrics are the ultimate is visceral poetry. I respect that Bukowski is a pivotal influence for many alternative artists, and as part of that respect I recommend that if you want to know Bukowski go direct to his poems, not excerpts of his drunken letters, for to real cutting force of his words. Start with THE TRAGEDY OF THE LEAVES:

I awakened to dryness and the ferns were dead,

the potted plants yellow as corn;

my woman was gone

and the empty bottles like bled corpses

surrounded me with their uselessness;

the sun was still good, though,

and my landlady’s note cracked in fine and

undemanding yellowness; what was needed now

was a good comedian, ancient style, a jester

with jokes upon absurd pain; pain is absurd

because it exists, nothing more;

I shaved carefully with an old razor

the man who had once been young and

said to have genius; but

that’s the tragedy of the leaves,

the dead ferns, the dead plants;

and I walked into a dark hall

where the landlady stood

execrating and final,

sending me to hell,

waving her fat, sweaty arms

and screaming

screaming for rent

because the world has failed us


If you are interested in a practical fiction writing guide, the following are books often recommended in writers workshops and training courses:

  • BECOMING A WRITER by Dorothea Brande


2 and a Half Pops


Kernel Morgan is an author of short fiction, an anthology editor, and a technical writer. Her debut collection was SNIGGERLESS BOUNDULATIONS. She enjoys scowling at children and bursting bubbles. She can be tweeted and stalked at @queenboxi.

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor/publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.