Clean-Up on Aisle Five

“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.”

One of my English students, a kindly middle-aged man who shares equal enthusiasm for Coltrane and capocollo, just introduced me to Charles Bukowski’s poem “so you want to be a writer?” He wanted to make sure the grammar was right, and I stumbled over my tongue a few times before answering yes. What I really wanted to answer was Grammar has nothing to do with it.

I well know the feeling of rushing to find a scrap of paper with which to mop up a sudden spill of words. That experience of diving head-first into creativity is why I created this blog. It’s why I started a book, why I spend dreary mornings curled over my keyboard for warmth, and also why I haven’t written lately. There has been no word spill on aisle five in a while. I keep sitting down at my desk to wring creativity from my brain drop by drop, but the results evaporate before I can compile them into something meaningful.

It sucks.

A few lines down in his poem, Bukowski continues,
“if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it”

…and I wonder if that’s the problem, if trying to sound like somebody else has been plugging my word-leaks before they have a chance to become glorious waterworks. Each time I’ve sat down to write over the last several days, I’ve had to contend with the taskmaster’s voice prodding me to whip out new content (and make it snappy!), the inferiority complex reminding me that I don’t have half the natural talent of my favorite authors, and the drone of despair convincing me that even if I had their ability, I still wouldn’t have anything to say…  and if emerging from that clamor unscathed isn’t hard work, I don’t know what is.

While I could certainly power through the noise and post something (first-edition grocery list, anyone? or perhaps a treatise on toothpaste flavors?), it would have all the authenticity of a vegan cheeseburger, and I wouldn’t end the day feeling any more artistic accomplishment than I do on days when I eke out three sentences and give up.

What I wanted to say to my English student is that the poem has nothing to do with grammar and everything to do with unplugged leaks, a torrential mess best sopped up with a blank page. However, Bukowski already said it best, so I let the student discover its meaning for himself while I cling to the last stanza like a life preserver, trusting that the sea will follow.

“when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.”

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  1. Sometimes I think the hardest thing about writing is the WRITING. Just doing it, keeping in the habit, letting something out in the hopes that something great will follow it all unannounced.

  2. I love this Bethany. I think, though, that Lizardek is right – the hardest part is just doing it. Maybe that is the most important part too? Maybe when you just write, whether it is good or not becomes secondary and you are eventually able to find fulfillment in the act of writing alone.

    Hope you are well. You’ve been on my mind lately.

  3. those quotes just made my first hour of a.m. all the better.

    and honey, i’ve been thinking about that lately–inspiration.
    it stays farther than the east is from the west when i’m staring at a blank page or the keyboard! but….it’s in those odd moments like washing dishes or doing the laundry or….none of the above, that ideas get planted.
    love this post. i want more spills in aisle five. mhmm.

  4. This was such a great example of capturing the uncapturable. That is what words do, they define what I can’t usually define. I had this same “ah-ha” moment when I watched that TED talk with Elizabeth Gilbert when she talked about the “genius” that finds you. I love these quotes and your connection to them. And, I may disagree with the author, I think, writing requires the hard work. It is the spilling that is the bonus. Liz is absolutely right (as usual) that the habit carries you, whether you are writing, or not…I am in the NOT right now, but I intend to be “in” soon. xo

  5. Yes. What Lizardek said. I’m sure you have Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird? Shitty first drafts and all of that? (If not, get it! And Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer)

    After I finish a notebook, I go back through it with a purple pen and circle the interesting stuff that I never followed up on, that snuck into a paragraph complaining about the weather, maybe just one well-turned phrase that I had forgotten I had turned. I always find something. Even if you wonder if the writing you’re doing is good at the time you are doing it, I’ll bet anything there is at least one magic line in the stuff that you think is stilted. Just keep on writing.

    (And remember – we rarely if ever know the agonies our favorite authors suffered while writing, or how many re-writes went into that novel we love…)

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