Famous Literary Battles: Flannery O’Connor versus Charles Bukowski

Here’s a battle every writer faces: What do you do when you can’t find your muse? We’ve all been stuck when the words just won’t come. What to do? Even when we consult the experts, we can’t get a definitive answer. Here are two extreme approaches to the problem, each from an accomplished author. First, let’s hear from one of the greatest voices in Southern literature, and one of my favorites, Flannery O’Connor:

Flannery O'Connor

“I must do do do and yet there is the brick wall that I must kick over stone by stone. It is I who has built the wall and I who must tear it down. I must force my loose mind into its overalls and get going.” – Flannery O’Connor

Then there’s this from poet, novelist, and literary bad boy Charles Bukowski:

Bukowski

“You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more.” – Charles Bukowski

So – when you’re hit with a bad case of writer’s block, should you damn the torpedoes and do SOMETHING, ANYTHING, or do you wait for inspiration?

Bukowski felt that a writer shouldn’t ruin a perfectly good piece of paper with overworked, forced attempts at self-expression, advising instead to let the psychic pressure build within until the words “come bursting out of you.” On the other hand, farm owner Flannery O’Connor saw writing like any other chore, which required rolling up one’s sleeves and wading into the task and not quitting until it was done.

I think the real lesson here is that writing, like any other artistic endeavor, is a craft and calling defying all formulas. Effective personal expression demands a personal approach, and discovering your own requires dedication and effort and plenty of wrong moves. As for myself, I can go for agonizing weeks researching and plotting and outlining before I dare put down the first word. Even then, it takes a while until I gain insights into characterization, setting, and crucial plot points. Then, gradually, momentum builds, and, when it works, I’m absorbed in a half-formed world that slowly reveals what I must do to help finish it.

Bottom line? Until the writing lifestyle helps you discover your own particular approach, remember the counsel of author Elissa Schappell: “The muse only shows up when you put your ass in the chair.”

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26 thoughts on “Famous Literary Battles: Flannery O’Connor versus Charles Bukowski”

  1. What if the inspiration, the words, the muse appears whilst your are out for a walk or take a shower or similar situations.
    I don’t write a book, just poetry so I developed a habit of getting the first lines down on whatever is available but going on a walk I have a little notebook in the pocket.
    I know a songwriter who told me the same.

    Anyway you can, get those words down and more will follow……
    miriam

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Not to pick a nit but I have found brick walls much easier to kick down when I attack the bricks and not the stones in some other, not so important, wall. It seems that when I was commuting to a real job I had over an hour in the morning and evening during which plots and characters danced about between my ears in the brief moments I was otherwise unoccupied with stop signs and brake lights. I don’t miss the real job but I do miss those moments on the road that were filled with what became my first novel. Since my services in the real world were no longer required it has become an effort to shut out all of the daily distractions and piece together a story. When it comes though, it comes. Oh, if it were only like a simple light switch on the wall, or a door in that darn brick wall.

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  3. Like nature vs nurture, is it a false dichotomy where both are needed? For songwriting, I need both inspiration and perspiration. Start with the big idea, then wait, regularly sit and work, and while at work if something worthwhile doesn’t appear after a reasonable time, do something else, add more food for thought, try later. Sometimes almost an entire song has popped out fully formed, other times I get only one new line per week. One time it took me over 10 years to finish a song, but that one won a songwriting contest. Thank you for this post. It reminded me to get back to work.

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      1. Thanks Mike. It was more like a decade long writers block. It took that long before an old bit I was stuck on manifested into something more interesting. Ten years for the seed to sit around without germinating. I guess it’s that way for many writers. The middle part of Day in the Life by the Beatles was an older song that never was, for example. “Woke up, fell out of bed…”

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  4. Thank you for this wonderful post. I’m doing my thing. Feel it’s working well, for a first attempt. Some people keep telling me, “Do this, do that”, but I’m letting it flow and will edit later… I feel I’m learning and growing as it advances, too.

    Would love to read your books!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Mike, I have one of your novels, Genie Hunt, and it is on my list of promised reads. I think most of us have a reading list and yours will be read soon and reviewed. As far as a Muse is concerned, I write the book in my head first. Then I write it on my word.doc. I like to really know my characters and the story, as though I have really known them. I am just re-telling a story I have already experienced. When I haven’t done that, I always have the beginning and the end. I have somewhere to go when writing. 🙂

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    1. KD Dowdall,

      Like you, I have to have some idea of where I’m going. Earlier in my writing career, I painted myself into corners because I hadn’t thought out the plot well enough. And yes, we have to be on intimate terms with our characters — otherwise, they might not tell us what they have to do.

      Thank you for picking up Genie! I hope you enjoy it.

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  6. I’m with Bukowski in letting the pressure build, having become an expert in waiting for all manner of things, including the inspiration for writing to flow. A bit like the blackbird that hops about on the grass and senses the worm stir – bingo.

    Liked by 1 person

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