A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us. – Franz Kafka
I’m writing a set of posts on drawing as a part of writing. A few years ago, at the local library, I picked up a copy of Charles Bukowski on Writing – and it sat on the shelf for a while. I don’t remember much from it but it had doodles – drawings and one of the things I do remember is that Bukowski added drawings to his submissions when he sent it off to attract the attention of the editor.
I looked up Bukowski again for this post and flipped through the first hundred or so pages of Charles Bukowski by Barry Miles. I wish a little that I hadn’t. Bukowski’s early years were grim, an abusive father, an outsider, a child living with daily violence at every place. He was a Nazi sympathizer until war was declared when he got rid of his propaganda. And then life seems to get hard and stay hard, no money, manual work life in low places. Alcoholism. And writing.
Writing is what seems to have saved him or at least sustained him. As a student he turned in 30 stories, all good, when his classmates were asked to turn in two or three. He read everything in the library. He liked Hemingway – and the idea of making something simple, then simpler still, then simpler yet. His writing style was to use simple words, nothing you needed a dictionary to understand, and was all loosely autobiographical.
I flipped through a book and a collection of poems and I find little in there but pain and the process of survival. It’s not a life that anyone should have had but it’s there, it exists, others presumably are living it now. Many years ago I was in a charity bookshop browsing the shelves and a homeless person wandered in. I remember flashes of him now, thick glasses, broken and held together with tape. Cloudy eyes behind them. A dirty green jacket. The smell.
He spoke to me. I wasn’t expecting it but answered and after some chat he pulled out some pages he had been writing and showed them to me. I can’t remember anything about them, not if they were good or bad. But that image, that person without a place with some writing stuffed into his jacket, appears to be the kind of life Bukowski lived and came out from and had some success with later.
The drawing above is in the style of Bukowski – I’ve tried to copy the free flow and sparse lines that he uses. They’re quite similar in look to the drawings of James Thurber and it looks like Bukowski drew hundreds of these but many have been lost over time – he didn’t keep copies of what he mailed out. Drawing for him, it seems, was just as important as writing – perhaps the two worked together.
The one thing to take away from Bukowski’s story is the power of art to free us from our own history.