Last year, I read some of the Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson. At first I was enjoying it, finding it funny — but then I began to feel annoyed with it, and stopped reading it.
The one real objection I had with it was about the writer Charles Bukowski. Mark Manson uses his life as an example of the importance of ‘not trying’. He describes Bukowski as someone who’d led a pretty ordinary life, not much different from the average American, except that he managed to become a successful writer. And the wisdom that he followed was ‘don’t try’, a kind of final statement that Bukowski had put on his headstone.
But as I read this section, all I could think was this guy doesn’t know anything about Charles Bukowski. Whatever he knew, it was coming across as pretty superficial.
Charles Bukowski might have believed that putting in too much effort, makes a creative work unnatural — but he certainly did try in terms of his career. He spent most of his life wanting to be a writer, and despite not having much success early on, he was always sending poems and stories to small literary publications. One of his biographers, whether fairly or unfairly, pointed out that he sometimes tried too much, acting out of desperation that he wasn’t getting anywhere as a writer.
Lots of good writers spend their lives trying. And often they’ve had to abandon their ambitions temporarily, when other more pressing things come up instead. Raymond Chandler wanted to be a poet in his early twenties, and managed to get work published in London where he was living at the time; but he realized that he would need to support his mum, and so he returned to America to get a proper job, and didn’t go back to writing until he was in his forties. But he obviously had never given up on his ambitions.
Also, Wyndham Lewis, whose scifi book Day of the Triffids, was considered a major breakthrough for a first book; even though people didn’t know that he had been writing pulp novels and short stories for at least a couple of decades under different pen names. He hadn’t had success straight away, but he had never stopped trying.
I actually think that these guys try a lot. They’ve tried lots of different things, different combinations of creative forms, never completely giving up on a belief that they had it in them to write something good. What form that would take, they probably never knew.
I know I’m doing a similar thing to what I am criticizing Mark Manson for — using other famous people to illustrate something I believe in myself. And I am being a little self-righteous about it. But I did read a lot of Charles Bukowski in my early twenties, often falling back on his books to cheer myself up during low points. And I think Mark Manson has got him wrong.
I personally believe that it is worth trying in life, and the challenge is to know when you are trying for genuine reasons or not. Is it because I believe in my ability and have a love of what I’m doing? Or is it because I am feeling desperate that I need ‘success’ to prove to others that I’m a worthwhile human being?
The people that I can see genuinely succeeding in life, the people in the area that I live, are the ones who try for genuine reasons. Who are trying for the people that they love — or for some deep self-belief.
To me, that’s the only distinction of try/don’t try that I feel is worth making.
Line drawing of Charles Bukowski by Monurbock23 / Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0