Monday, February 3, 2014

30 For 30: Post Office by Charles Bukowski

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! Today in part 2, we get very introspective with the novel Post Office by poet/author/professional drunk Charles Bukowski.

Discovering Charles Bukowski when I was a year or so out of college made me want to go on living. At the time I was working a part-time dead end job and still living with my parents. All of my friends had moved away, so all I had to do, all I wanted to do, was write, drink, and listen to music. I knew with my college degree in Communication that I couldn't get the kind of job that I really wanted, especially in the city I live, so it was a long process of trying to find something that was both full-time and would put enough money in my pocket month-to-month to let me live on my own. Until I finally was able to do this in the summer of 2009, I spent close to three years drinking and writing. And if you know anything about Charles Bukowski, you know where I'm going with this.

The odd thing is, I don't think Post Office is his best book. It's the one most people are likely to have read, yet compared to Women it's far shorter, with fewer memorable characters and passages. In fact, there's quite a few pages of Post Office which reproduce, verbatim, actual documents from Bukowski's post office job, including disciplinary memos for his absenteeism. What makes Post Office resonate so much with me is that it's the beating heart of a suffering man at a dead end job held up for all to see. There are parts of this book that are torn right out of thoughts I've had at various jobs I've had over the years, including my current one. If you've ever felt like a job took and took from you, never rewarded you for your years of hard work until you just stopped caring, then this is a book for you, too.

Bukowski has always had a mixed reputation, with some calling him the poet of the gutters and others calling him a misogynistic asshole who drinks too much and just happens to write. The truth is somewhere in between, I suppose. You can find as many passages of his writing which prove he was an egotistical braggart full of bravado as you can passages where he basically undermines his entire reputation—like the part in Women where he sobs like a child. Or the ending of Factotum, where he watches a stripper but is unable to “get it up.” I think this is just a thing with alcoholic writers who had rough childhoods—they go back and forth between thinking they're undiscovered geniuses the world should recognize, and self-pitying sad sacks who don't care about being embarrassed by admissions of great vulnerability and pathetic stories taken, and embellished, from their lives.

Perhaps one of the most accurate photos of the man ever taken 

I opened this piece by saying that discovering Bukowski made me want to go on living, so I guess I should explain some more. I have always struggled with depression and fitting into society; it's not that I'm anti-social, I simply can't get along very well with most people and would prefer to be alone. It would take my entire life story to show that I'm not being some whiny emo teen by saying such things, but suffice it to say that I often feel “at odds” with what society seems to value and prize. I usually get a reputation at jobs for being the quiet, depressed looking guy who complains a lot but works really hard, so reading Post Office for the first time was like discovering a kindred soul. When you think that your unhappiness is unique to you, that there is no way out, you become hopeless but not in a suicidal way. You just kind of shut down, I guess. And I was in that state until I found Bukowski.

Post Office ends, quite tidily, with Bukowski—or I should say his alter-ego, Henry Chinaski—quitting his job and going on a lengthy bender. Coming to one morning, he decides to write a novel. Even without reading the book, you can guess that the book he wrote is Post Office. This ending has always stuck with me; it's a little too clever to be a truly great ending, I admit, but something about it's matter-of-factness really got to me and still does. It was something like when bands in the 70s were inspired by the punk rock scene and said to themselves, “I thought you had to be a rich, good looking, musical virtuoso to be a musician! But I guess anyone can do it!” The key is to realize you can be a musician, artist, writer, or creative type in general without looking at it as your career. My career will never be writing but I consider myself a writer. This wasn't always the case.

For whatever reason, I assumed that you had to be an English major and/or have a publisher already lined up to write a novel, to be a writer. But nope, anyone can do it. Finishing Post Office was one of those “ah-ha!” moments of my life. “So wait, you can write a novel and it doesn't have to be some high minded, high falutin' epic? It can be about how you drink too much, hate your job, and can't seem to exist in society like normal people do?” It was only after reading Bukowski that I realized any novel I wrote could be about whatever I wanted it to. Chances are nobody would read it anyway, so what was the big deal? 

I had always toyed with the idea of writing a novel, after close to a decade of writing poetry, short stories, and reviews of albums just for the fun of it. Since they weren't getting published and I wasn't getting paid to do them, I figured I wasn't “really” a writer. So I'll let you in on a secret: all you have to do to be a writer is to write, and to have to write. I have spent many months of writer's block from time to time questioning why it is that I do what I do. Nobody seems to read my stuff or care, so why do I bother? Why not just think those things to myself and not write them down somewhere? Isn't it the same thing?

What I've realized recently is that it's not the same. It's the difference between visualizing a painting and actually painting something. You do it not because you think you're good at it or to have something to brag about. You do it because you have to and you love it. Why am I compelled to write something like this piece about my own life and Bukowski's Post Office? I don't know, but I do know that I have to. It helps me in some way; it gives me something. This “something” I can't explain but I know I need it to keep on living. It's like medication or religion, and the more I want to fight it or give up on it, the more it tries to get me back.

I would quote Bukowski's "if you're going to try, go all the way" quote here, but I once saw Bono reciting it and it made me like it a little less

I hate writing more than you can imagine, but I also love it more than anything else in the world. I hate it because I have to do it and it won't ever leave my life even if I think most of what I write is pointless garbage no one cares about. I love it because I have to do it and it makes me not want to leave this life.

A few years after reading Post Office, I self-published a novel, and a couple years after that I published a collection of blog posts from Whiskey Pie. I don't know that they'll make any difference to anyone else's lives but they did to mine. I had to do them and I feel more alive for having done so. I write because I feel that I have to write, and Charles Bukowski taught me that if you have to write, you should. I doubt he knew why he wrote Post Office but I'm sure he would've agreed that writing will make all the hungover mornings at work and all the long nights of insomnia and apathy worth it, somehow. It may sound strange to take inspiration from a writer whose every book is suffused with depression, solitude, bad relationships going even worse, and a lingering aroma of stale cigarette smoke and spilled beers, but with inspiration, sometimes you have to take it wherever you can get it.

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