On Bukowski and Motherhood

The famous first line from Charles Bukowski’s Roll the Dice: “If you’re going to try, go all the way.” He implies: let your creative fire consume you to the exclusion of all life’s dross.

I love it.

From a theoretical standpoint, I love it.

But I have questions.

I’m compelled to sit down over whiskey shots with Bukowski and clarify.  When you mention not eating for three or four days, surely you mean just during the day? Regarding the loss of relatives, what’s the selection process? And when you say “it could mean freezing on a park bench,” could that possibly mean for just a half-hour, waiting for my three-year-old to take one last slide ride (“Okay, now say ‘bye bye’ to the playground!”)—and then I can go inside and warm up?

As much as I adore the notion of the extreme creative life—as darkly intrigued as I am by its most tragic tales—I’ve come to realize something over the years. The angsty, 80s-era goth teen in me hates to admit it: my creative life has not been representative of Bukowski’s dice-rolling sentiment. It has not been extreme.

I’ve tried several serious creative pursuits over my lifetime, but none to the exclusion of all else. Music was a huge part of my life for many years. I rarely had to choose between music and jobs, school, friendships, or relationship. My husband and I spent a decade in the same band together before we married. Friendships were a consequence of musical pursuits—not collateral damage.

Writing is different than playing in a band. A solitary pursuit. “Isolation is the gift,” Bukowski says; he’s talking about writing. Sometimes it’s hard to discern another writer in your real-life midst, but when you do find one out there, it’s a super-cool common bond. Well, or maybe it’s just my one-sided perception. Regardless, I find it motivating, invigorating.  I dig thinkers. I dig those who sanctify time to craft words to articulate thoughts. And I wholly admire what I call the “comfortable alone”: those who can withstand silence, who are willing to forego interaction long enough to reflect and process and bring forth eloquence.

When I find another writer, I’m struck by a sense of camaraderie in mutual isolation.

Writing requires silence in a noisy world. It demands isolation and introspection in an era of social networking and immediate gratification. Pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, Charles Bukowski implied it in Roll the Dice (although he gives voice to the extreme): to bolster and intensify that creative fire, one must understand there’s a tradeoff. For periods of isolation, sessions of silence, one must push back against status quo culture.

But may I suggest, perhaps over another whiskey round—one need not trade it all to “go all the way”?

When I was pregnant with my first child, I knew everything would change. Of course: we had just dismantled my home office and repurposed it for a baby’s room. Everyone told me things would change. I was told by seasoned parents that I would put everything on hold. Music, writing, painting, drawing. All that could wait, would have to wait. My child would come first now, in every aspect. And I’d be okay with that, I was told.

I would necessarily, happily trade it all away: my creativity, my ambition, my times of solitude—all for motherhood.

Quick. Before last call. Again may I suggest—one need not trade it all?

May I hope?

I am determined to find the middle ground. To honor one’s creative fire is something I plan to teach my own children. They’re small now, and they need a lot of attention, so my carving out alone time is sometimes impossible and often impractical. But I’m willing to work gradually. They’re growing up fast, and they pick up on a lot.

In order to teach it—this respect of one’s internal creative drive—I try to do it, when I can. I want them to understand it’s not only “okay” to take that time, it’s crucial. By integrating the concept of occasional, regular alone time in my family culture, I hope to provide my kids validation to seek and treasure their own aloneness, and what creativity may come of it.

But striking a balance is key. The active pursuit of writing is, strangely, much like a child: given attention, it wants ever more attention.  I negotiate with my own writing-addicted id/ego complex the same way I bargain with my kids. “Patience, you’ll get your turn.” “Be good for me, and you’ll get a treat.” “I’ll be back, and then we’ll do something fun together!” My creative fire is a toddler.

If he could read this, Bukowski would probably laugh at me. But who knows? Maybe he’d at least pay the tab.

Either way, the angsty goth teen in me would dig it.

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Fleeting Dolor and Halcyon Days

Weeks go by smoothly, orchestrated by normal routine. Plans pay off hitchlessly. Murphy’s Law, once respected as harsh reality, takes on the seeming of dark-humored mythology.

Times like these put me on my guard.

In times like these, in disbelief and half amazed, I admire the tenuously-balanced system of my existence—of society’s complex web, of the unlikely miracle of life itself, of universal physics and all its mind-blowing implications and unknowns—and murmur like Bernadette Peters in The Jerk as she peels away Steve Martin’s beauty mask: “This shit really works!”

Do you ever start to worry when you’ve been feeling comfortable, maybe even downright happy, for an extended period of time? Ever get superstitious about your own life? Maybe it’s just me. It’s at times like these when Act II’s hungry, predatory shadow circles the fat-rodent-riddled Act I meadow of my mind.

Something’s gotta give.

In conventional story structure, the catalyst lurks between  Act I and Act II, triggering the protagonist’s next move into conflict-laden times ahead. This catalyst is the inciting incident that breaks the main character’s sense of normalcy, for better or worse. In real life, the notion of this permeable boundary between all-is-well-Act I into the rising-stakes-Act II is prime fodder for anxiety.

Have you ever experienced an ominous sense of impending entropy? Ever felt like forces of chaos and disorder were leaning in just a liiiiittle too close?

Conflict shall arise in some form, as inevitable as death and taxes. And unlike a typical movie, with its singular A-plot and neatly-integrated subplots, real life sometimes bears multiple simultaneous conflicts of A-plot status. Competing calls to action. A potential legion of antagonists.

From Act I’s halcyon standpoint, the suspense is killer.

Where routine had once established itself without blemish, where carefully planned systems once operated smoothly—suddenly, the routine cannot hold. The system does not suffice. Neither is enough to keep chaos at bay. Cannot forego entropy. Cannot block the froth-mouthed Act II wolf from entering Act I’s placid, self-satisfied throne room.

As Steve Martin circa ’79 might advise, stay away from the cans.

When next my tidy little system shows its limits—when my halcyon days are upset by the next inciting incident of life’s complex narrative—I wonder: what sort of protagonist will I prove to be?