CHARLES BUKOWSKI IS HELPING ME WRITE A SHORT STORY
One of my favourite all time writers is Charles Bukowski, I am a great admirer of his deliberately unadorned style, his keen edged insight into the human race, his wit and his wisdom. One of the most remarkable things, for me, about Bukowski, is the way in which he was able to continue working on his craft, forging brilliant gems, delivering that piercing prose, while generally loaded, or suffering from a hangover. His writing is informed by human existence, in all its banality, beauty and torpor, and he had enormous compassion, I think, for the poor. This comes over in his work, despite his many protestations to the contrary, on tape, at interview, or whenever. He was mischievous was old Bukowski, he could lead his more serious disciples right up the garden path whenever he felt like it. I like to think he's still going on from the grave, writing, talking, expressing himself in his inimitable fashion.
Recently I was grappling with a short story containing 4 main characters, one of whom, is pretty nasty. This is the character around whom the others gravitate and I was trying for honest depiction. My character happens to be African, and life based, (like the majority of characters that a writer invents - even the most outlandish characters, such as Hannibal Lecter, have some basis in reality) and I was struggling with showing what I perceived to be the authenticity of this character, while avoiding easy assumptions based on race, and maintaining a balance within the story itself. This wasn't helped by the fact that when I showed it to my fellow students on the MA programe at London University one or two people were uneasy with what they regarded as 'racial stereotype'.
I was perturbed and attempted to clean up his act, make him more palatable, but a nagging voice (turned out to be Bukowksi) said, hey! you are losing his truth! You are not doing either him, or you, any favours.
So I consulted a good friend of mine from Ghana, who had read the original piece, and with or two reservations, (which I accepted), found him utterly convincing. When she saw what I had done to him in subsequent drafts, she was outraged.
'What have you done? You've whitewashed him! You've taken away all his character, he's boring now!'
Then Bukowski, (whom I now regard as my mentor, and guide) said,
'You know she's right, so sing it like it is, baby.'
In the end I resurrected my African, brought him back out of his snow white casket and reinstated him to the place where he belonged. He's back, and with a vengeance, and he rocks.
The moral of this story being, be true to your characters, and to yourself as a writer.
Another thing Bukowski is helping me with, is the de-purpling of my prose, check him out, he's awesome. See the way he conveys myriad ideas within a few simple lines. For instance, in the opening pages of 'Factotum', Henry Chinaski, a wanderer and a loner, is in search of employment. A guy calls him over and offers him a job.
Over his shoulder I could see a large dark room. There was a long table with men and women standing on both sides of it. They had hammers with which they pounded objects in front of them. In the gloom the objects appeared to be clams. They smelled like clams. I turned and continued walking down the street.
These four un-complex sentences contain a rich subtext on the monotony of menial work, poverty, social exploitation, and the narrator's own rejection of the value system he has inherited, and yet is forced to inhabit.