Whether you love or hate writer and poet Charles Bukowski, it has to be admitted he had a sense of humour. On his gravestone he had inscribed, as advice to future writers, ‘Don’t Try’.
It was something he knew a lot about. He tried very hard in his 20s to get stories into print. He had two published and then gave up, worn down by all the rejections. After ten years of drinking and not writing he went back to poetry and at 49 wrote his first novel Post Office. Until he died 24 years later he wrote almost every night, and today there are 60 volumes of poetry, short stories, non-fiction and novels- most of it still in print. Most people would say he learnt to try very hard indeed.
But what Bukowski meant was: ‘do’ don’t ‘try to do’. I think of ‘trying’ as a kind of posture, encouraged at school and at home, by over eager teachers and parents. The kids who act and look keenest, while keeping a weather eye on the other kids so as not to appear as creeps, get ahead. They learn first and foremost how to appear to be ‘trying hard’. They get rewarded with attention for looking interested, for 'trying'. But life is about doing not trying.
What you need to do in writing is to construct a method where you don’t have to try, you just do. This might mean accepting you make lots of revisions so any one draft however bad, doesn’t get you down. Or it might mean planning the whole thing out so you can write it straight through almost on autopilot. Whatever it takes to eliminate that constipated unproductive sensation of ‘trying’.
Often a breakthrough comes when you’ve been working away and got seemingly nowhere. You then almost give up, but somehow don’t. Emotionally, you’re drained. The next day, without effort, you know how to fix everything. But instead of having to take it to the brink like this invent a method that works for you: trust that you will have breakthroughs and when you hit a wall keep up momentum but don’t ‘try’. When I hit a wall – which means I don’t know what to do next with a completed, but unsatisfactory, draft- I print it out, read through, make a list of corrections- and even if the corrections are tiny this process often reveals the deeper problems which I then instantly fix. But if I thought about those deep problems I’d get in a mess trying too hard. Laser printers are a marvelous invention.
Trying is keeping going with the brakes still on. It is keeping going without knowing where to go. It is keeping going when you are aiming at a result rather than a process. You are aiming at ‘having written a novel’ rather than writing it. You have to enjoy the process a little bit. You don’t have to love it but there must be some satisfaction sitting there at the keyboard.
You have to keep going but it is better to move sideways like a crab than to head butt a brick wall. Sooner or later you’ll find a break you can move through. Easily.