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Bukowski and the Down-and-Outs

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Jorge Muzam

It was Charles Bukowski who said, "the worst men have the best jobs, the best men have the worst jobs or are unemployed or locked in madhouses". These days, with a 42% graduate unemployment forecast for 2013, any man, good or bad, would be lucky to have a job.

If you're familiar with Bukowski, you'll know it took him almost 50 years to 'hit the big time' as a writer. The first five decades of his life were spent bumbling, drinking and screwing around, bouncing from one redundancy to another. In fact, the thought of full-time employment terrified Bukowski so much he wrote a whole book about his run-ins with the LA job market, the brilliant Factotum,

"The thought of sitting in front of a man behind a desk and telling him that I wanted a job, that I was qualified for a job, was too much for me. Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed".

Charles Bukowski might not be the best role-model when it comes to holding down a job. He is, however, a fantastic role-model when it comes to finally getting published. After slaving (and boozing) away for 49 years, Bukowski decided to put everything on the line and risk starvation in pursuit of his art, writing in a letter, "I have one of two choices - stay in the post office and go crazy ... or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve". Fortunately, Bukowski was able to deliver the goods when it came to writing. His fiction built on the fan-base of his poetry, and before he died, he was hailed as "The laureate of American lowlife" by Time magazine.

It's a romantic story, and one that has a firm hold on the mind of any writer horrified by what a man (or woman) has to do in order to eat, sleep and keep himself clothed. Now, with jobs increasingly hard to come by, becoming a down-and-out author could be one of the only options for the committed writer. This mythology of the starving writer has long been explored and exploited by the likes of Henry Miller, George Orwell, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and even Papa Hemingway himself, who wrote about his own down-and-out days in the autobiographical A Moveable Feast.

Clearly, persistence worked out for all of these writers, which is why we're still talking about them today. As well as receiving the 1954 Nobel Prize for literature, Hemingway succeeded in becoming one of the richest men in the world, a combination of critical acclaim and commercial success virtually unheard of for today's authors.

Of course there have been a handful of notable contemporary success stories. Commercial fiction (including horror and thrillers) or chic-lit still has the power to get you far, just take a look at the likes of E L James, James Patterson and Stephen King. There are even instances of down-and-out writers achieving international recognition and amassing untold wealth; J K Rowling famously began the first draft of Harry Potter in an Edinburgh cafe because she couldn't afford to pay the heating bill at home. Tony Parsons began his career in a gin factory, before his debut novel got him a staff writing gig at NME, eventually leading to Man and Boy becoming one of the most commercially successful books ever, and also winning the 2001 British Book of The Year Award.

It's all encouraging stuff for the young authors of today. But what are the chances of really becoming a commercially and critically successful author in 2013? For me personally, the idea of being a down-and-out writer living in a bedsit hasn't had to become a reality just yet. This is due to still living at my parents' home. It's a less than ideal situation for any 23 year-old, but if I was to move out, down-and-out would certainly become a highly-realistic possibility. Obviously, this is usually par for the course of being young and starting out in any field.

For the writer life is full of rejection emails and requires an equal degree of talent and persistence. The myth that every artist has a 'big-break' coming their way, and that they'll one day be 'discovered' is just that: a myth. No one will stumble upon your writing and offer you a book deal unless you get yourself out there.

Fortunately, we're living in the golden age of social media and self promotion. It's not the most difficult thing in the world to upload your work through a self-publishing site such as Lulu, and build a buzz around it yourself with the help of some strategically-placed tweets. The internet is full of such self-publishing success stories. It might not be likely, and clearly it will only happen to a handful of writers, but you'll never know if you don't try. E L James probably never thought she'd be earning $1million per week, or have her Twilight fan-fiction made into a Hollywood film.

'Keep writing' may sound obvious, but it's the best advice I've ever received. Even if no one is interested, keep writing. If it's what you want to do, keep going. It is perhaps a bit of a Disney-style happy-ending notion to claim that if you put the work in and keep doing what you love, your dreams will come true. The chances are, it won't, especially not in today's climate where publishing houses have their purse strings wrapped up tighter than Scrooge McDuck's bank vault. With 'normal' jobs becoming rarer and rarer prospects, the idea of becoming a down-and-out writer is becoming increasingly attractive, so why not give it your all? All any of us can really do is try.

As another great writer once said, "Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you've done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I'll be damned, I did this today... At the end of the week you'll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I'll be damned, it's been a good year".

If anyone knows about writing it's Ray Bradbury. So there you are, unemployment and down-and-out style bedsits (or even your parents' house) might seem unattractive at the moment, but it might not always have to be that way. Keep writing, keep promoting yourself and perhaps you'll achieve the success you want, and hopefully, all long before you're 50.

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