October 4, 2013

Finding Bukowski…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:29 pm


if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it…

if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it…

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready…


They trickled in right along for quite a while after the book came out. You could always pretty much tell when they walked through the door at work. Looking a little self-conscious, smiling shyly, usually. Definitely not here looking for a pole building or metal roofing or any such thing. Often it was a couple, and usually it was the woman who clutched a copy of Growing Up Amish in her hands. And Rosita or I always greeted them kindly. Can I help you? “Is Ira here?” Almost always asked with just a shade of disbelief, that they’d actually find the author they were looking for here, working at a building supply business.

And I have always received them cheerfully. Thanked them for taking the time, for driving the extra miles and making the effort to actually stop in. And I stood there, leaning on my side of the counter, and we’d talk. Chat about this and that, the book, mostly. I always asked them where they came from, and they came from all over. From the south. The west. Canada. All over. So far, a guy from Ireland holds the record for the greatest distance traveled. And I always gave them what time I had, at least five minutes, sometimes more if things were slow. And then I’d sign their copy and maybe sell them another one from my box right by my desk, the latest edition with “New York Times Bestseller” across the top. You need this one, I’d tell them, pointing that out. Sometimes they fell for it, sometimes not. And soon, off they’d go, on down the road. I hope I created some memories for some of them. I couldn’t imagine driving much out of the way and stopping in somewhere to see me, but that’s just me. I try to be accessible. I mean, it always was astonishing to me, to see someone walk in to see me just because of the book. It still is.

Lately, though, that little flow of fan traffic has slowed to almost nothing. Sure, maybe once every couple of weeks, someone will still pop in. But I think there were a few stretches of at least a month or so when no one did. All right, it’s getting close to over, I told Rosita. People have pretty much stopped stopping in. And that’s the way it was, the last while.

Until last week. I sold a few books over the counter, all of a sudden. To customers, standing there. Most of them never even notice my little book sign stuck to the back of the computer screen with tape. And I never mention anything, if they don’t. Now, all of a sudden, they seemed to be seeing that sign. And asking about it, then looking real astonished, then buying a copy right on the spot. This is pretty wild, I thought, selling books over the counter like that. And it was, until the door opened, oh, fairly early in the week, and a couple walked in. You could see they weren’t there to buy a pole barn. And they asked for me. Rosita smiled and pointed to my desk behind the counter. They walked up, and it was like it always was. I stood, and we talked across the counter. I thanked them for stopping by. And we chatted about what they wanted to talk about, mostly the book and my writing. And then they left. I didn’t think much of it. A sporadic thing, that kind of thing was these days. But it wasn’t, last week. Another couple walked in the next day. And another the day after that. I took time with them all. And the talk always turned one way, eventually. When am I coming out with the next book?

Well, I told them, some in more detail than others. It was all one big blessing, what the book has been so far. And whatever it is in the future will be, too. And I’m sure there would be a market for a sequel. But right now, I’m just writing and posting on my blog. That’s the only place it’s coming out. The only place I can speak, so that’s where I’m speaking. What you see there is where I am. A second book will come when it does. And if it doesn’t, it just won’t. I’ll write where I can write. And I won’t, where I can’t. And they all seemed to hear what I was saying. Not sure if it made much sense to them, but they heard me saying it.

The week slipped by toward the weekend. I was looking forward to it. My brother Jesse and his wife Lynda and two of their younger daughters were stopping in at Steve’s on Friday night. They’d be around a day or two. We’d all hang out, mostly at Steve’s place. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Jesse. After work, I headed over and we waited until they pulled in around seven in a very cool little rented SUV. A long day of fighting traffic, that’s what they’d been through. We greeted each other boisterously and milled about, talking. Then inside, where Wilma had fixed a delicious supper. Afterward, I asked about their plans for the next day. “Oh,” Steve said. “We’re just taking them around.” Well, stop by my place when you can, I said. I don’t know if I’ll invite you in, but I want to show Jesse what I did to my place outside. And we figured it would be sometime in the early afternoon, when they’d stop by. I’ll look for you, I said, and left for home.

And Saturday morning came. Beautiful and cloudless. My cell phone rang right at eight, which is an unearthly hour for me on Saturdays, unless I’m working. I sleep in, usually. But not this morning. Comcast was stopping by. My land line didn’t work. Quit cold about two months ago. I ignored it, because I don’t use it much. But still, if it’s there, and included in the package I’m paying for, I might as well get it fixed. I had called tech support earlier. A guy from India, clearly, by his accent. Friendly enough, though. He guided me through his little list of quick fixes. Nope. The line’s still dead, I told him. And he got me scheduled for that Saturday, to have a tech stop by. The guy arrived in a van, and I let him in. He scanned things with his iPhone and found the problem in about two seconds. And he handed me my cordless land line phone, dial tone buzzing. Well, that was simple, I said. “Yep,” he answered. “Do you have your voicemail set up?” Voicemail? What’s that? “Well, this is how you set it up,” he said, and showed me. I was pretty astounded.

After he left, I dug into the voicemail instructions, and set it up with my password. And dialed it in. A very nice lady’s voice then cheerfully informed me that there were exactly fifty messages waiting, from all the way back to last October. Good grief, I thought. I hope it was nothing important. Couldn’t have been, because you can find me if you’re looking for me. But still. Good grief. Fifty messages.

And I went through all fifty of them. Some were sales calls, but a good many were messages from friends and acquaintances, too. Hey, Ira, can you give me a call? From all the way back to last fall, some of them. Oh, well. No sense calling back now, and trying to explain. They’ll just have to think I’m rude, I figured. And I deleted every one. If by any chance you were one of those who left me a message, that’s what happened. And that’s why I never got back to you. I never knew you called. It is what it is, I guess.

Awake now, early because of the Comcast man, I stirred about. Got my coffee, ran some errands here and there. And sometime that morning, I saw the email coming in. From my friend, Patrick Miller. I checked the message on my phone, on the road. It was pretty short, with a link. “Poem about whiskey and writing – thought of you.” Patrick doesn’t send me a lot of links. Actually, he rarely sends me any. So if he sends one, I always check it out. It would have to wait, though, until I got back home.

And I got back home, and it was close to midday. Company was coming soon. Steves and Jesses. The outside looked fine. I quickly stacked stuff around, to make the inside at least half presentable. And around one, my cell phone rang. Steve. They were on the way over, they’d be here soon. Come on, I said. I’m home. And soon enough, his van pulled in. I walked out. Steve and Wilma and Jesse and Lynda stepped out to greet me. Welcome, I said. This is my home. And I showed them the angel first, standing under the shrub tree. Told them, here it is. And we walked around the house, as I pointed out all the improvements. Jesse seemed impressed. A real nice job of repointing those bricks, he thought. I invited them inside then, and the women didn’t seem too horrified. We made room on the couch and on the easy chair, and I sat by my desk. It all fit. I showed Jesse some of the book paraphernalia, the honorary doctorate and framed posters and such. Each with its own embellished tale, of course. It was a good time, and a comfortable one.

And they left, then. “Come on over for sausages tonight,” Wilma told me. “Around five. We’re grilling them over the fire ring, and we want to get it done before it gets dark.” I’ll be there, I said. The van pulled out. I went back to my desk. Time to check out that link Patrick sent me. A poem about whiskey and writing. I like scotch, as Patrick knows. I wondered if the poem was about that, drinking scotch while writing. I’ve certainly been known to do that.

I clicked on the link. It was an ad for Dewar’s scotch whiskey. Some poem, professionally narrated. The theme of the ad was about getting up each day, and doing what you do. But the poem was about writing. They tried to make it about just going to work every day, and did a pretty good job. But the author’s voice came through. Clear as a bell on a foggy morning. He was writing about writing. And I just sat there, almost mesmerized, and listened. It was truth, pouring out of those speakers. Raw, real truth. Not since the first time I picked up and read Thomas Wolfe has something so real hit me so hard in a way that only great writing can hit you.

And Wolfe had told what it was, to write. In pages and pages of soaring, sweeping prose. This guy, who wrote this poem, got it all told in a few hundred words. I’ve never been much of a poetry fan. It’s a condensed play on words, poetry. And most of the stuff out there is hardly worth glancing at, or hearing. “Fudge and taffy, slop and goo,” as Wolfe wrote. But this, this poem was gold. Just solid and brutal truth, told in a raspy narrator’s voice. I sat back and drank it in, absorbed it. And then again. And again. It was so raw, so real, and so true that I felt it all the way down, deep inside. This, this is how it is. How it always was. I just never could find the words to describe it. This guy, this Charles Bukowski, could and did.

The ad was about getting up and going to work, though, not about writing. And I googled the poem. “So You Want to be a Writer.” Pulled it right up. And read what the narrator had left out. It all fit. It all made so much sense. Because that’s where I’ve always been, the place Bukowski speaks of.

You write when it comes, and you write from where you are. It makes no difference where that might be. I remember telling the Tyndale people. It seems strange, to get paid to do this. Seems almost wrong, somehow. Not that I don’t like the money. I do. And I’ll take what the market gives me, and I’ll be grateful for every penny. And enjoy it. But still, I’d throw it all out on the blog, too, for free. Just like I would have thrown out the story of Growing Up Amish. It wouldn’t have been so concise, so connected, and definitely not edited by a true editor who got my voice, like it is in the book. But the essence of the story would have been written, anyway. You would have had to wade through a lot more words, sure. But it would have been told. Because I would have told it.

And that’s why I always talk about the journey of the book like I do. I’m grateful for everything it was and is. It was a wild adventure that came out of nowhere. And took me to some wild places. And it all went the way it did, because I wasn’t looking for it. How many writers and academics would give their left arm to have “New York Times Bestseller” on the cover of their book? A lot, I think. Most of them will never see it because they want it so badly. And don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of that distinction. It’s an honor I will always treasure. But it’s not why I wrote the book. Or anything else I write. It never was a reason to write, to reach bestseller status. And it never will be.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.

You write because you have to, you write when it comes out. It really doesn’t matter where that is. In your diary, in your journal, and in today’s wired world, on your blog, if you have the nerve to throw your stuff out there. The whole wide world is open to what you have to say, if you want to speak it. And if you have to speak it, you will. Doesn’t matter if you have half a dozen readers. Or thousands. Writing is not a formula. It comes as it will, as the winds that sweep the earth. You speak it, when it comes. And you respect the silence, when it doesn’t.

And why didn’t I know who this Bukowski guy was? One might ask. You might indeed. I do remember the name, and I’m sure I read some of his short stuff in college. But I don’t remember this poem. Never heard of it. Maybe that’s because I don’t hang around people who talk about writers much, I don’t know. I don’t subscribe to any writer’s blog. Except one. Fred Reed, the Curmudgeon. I want to know what he says when he says it. Otherwise, I just go to the sites I want to read. And most of those are about freedom.

And I wonder. Do they tell of this poem at Writer’s Conferences? Which I abhor, because they try to tell you how to write. If those conferences don’t teach this stuff, (and how can you ever teach such a thing?), I think I’d ask for my money back. You can’t “teach” anyone how to write. It either comes on its own, or it doesn’t.

And yeah, yeah, I know how it is, often, when Christians are confronted with truth that great writers speak. I remember talking to Dad back when I was in college. Somehow Ernest Hemingway came up. I’m not a big fan, but the man was a literary giant. Dad wasn’t impressed at all. “Didn’t he commit suicide?” he asked. Well, yeah, I said. What does that have to do with whether or not he could write? “Well, I don’t know that I’d want to read anything from a man who did that,” Dad replied. And I could only shake my head. There wasn’t a whole lot more to say, in that conversation. But I’ve thought about it since, now and then. Who can speak truth? Only people in your social or religious circles? Only people you agree with? Only people that supposedly aren’t flawed, somehow? And it’s the same thing, with Bukowski. He lived a hard life, much of it. And many “Christians” will recoil from the details. It doesn’t matter to me at all. Who and what he was is between him and God. Why should I get bogged down in judging that? What matters to me today is what he wrote.

And what he wrote is truth, when it comes to what writing is. It’s that simple. I will take and absorb what he said for a long time. Because you can be flawed to the core and speak truth all day long, when you speak it like that.

Had I known this poem and its message, I never would have tried to write anything for a sequel, back when that happened and it all went like it did. Because I would have known better. But I didn’t know better. And I was a little intimidated by it all, anyway. That was pretty much the accepted formula of going about it, so I certainly can’t fault anyone for suggesting it. You wrote a book that sold decently. Now write another before everyone forgets you. So you can slip in a few more sales, quick. I shiver now, just thinking about it. And I recoil from that mindset. But I wasn’t strong enough to say what I really felt back then. Plus, I was too freaked out to really know what I felt, anyway. And that’s just the way it went. Part of walking through this crazy world of writing and publishing. And there was something powerful, something cleansing, something freeing, about writing and crashing like that. If you try to go where you can’t force yourself to go, you’ll never get there. You’ll never see the place that is impossible to enter until it comes on its own and opens the door and invites you in. And tells you to speak.

There is no other way than to let it come when it does. And if it never does come, I’ll do something else. Because there is no other way. And there never was. But I’m just repeating what a wise man and master writer once said.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

Charles Bukowski



  1. I don’t think I’ve ever been first to comment on your blog, Ira my friend. Though I have yet to read it I’m taking the opportunity while it’s there. Is that prideful? Ask me if I care.

    Comment by Francine — October 4, 2013 @ 6:39 pm

  2. Poignant poem. Great blog.

    Comment by Rhonda — October 4, 2013 @ 9:05 pm

  3. Great blog. Totally validates your thinking and your decisions. How wonderful that you found this man. Be at peace with yourself.

    Comment by Rosanna — October 4, 2013 @ 9:41 pm

  4. Mostly everybody has a book inside of them; some write them and some don’t. You are very blessed that your book got published and more blessed that people want to read it. I always felt that a book should be written for the enjoyment of the writer, a sort of self entertainment. When I read a book the writer feels like a friend who I may never actually get to meet. They have told me how they feel and I find it interesting. You have the rest of time for people to discover your book over and over,I for one feel priviliged to have met you through Facebook.

    Comment by Carol Ellmore — October 5, 2013 @ 6:57 am

  5. I agree with Carol Ellmore, I feel privileged to have met you thru your Book and your Blog. I enjoy reading your blogs and look forward to them. They are a bright spot in my week.
    God Bless you.

    Comment by Linda Morris — October 5, 2013 @ 10:41 am

  6. Ira,

    I believe the reason people want to meet you is less because you’re ex-Amish and more because it’s difficult to believe you’re real. It’s like a confirmation that your memoir is true and your feelings are flesh and blood.

    Thanks for always being you.


    Comment by Kelly Hunt — October 5, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

  7. Not being a poetry reader, I must say that poem was very moving, the words, his voice, just made it so simple to understand. He is discussing writing, but I think what he said is so true about living life in general. Like always enjoy your blog.

    Comment by Warren — October 5, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

  8. Doesn’t your land line phone have caller ID – and “missed call” list?

    Comment by Debra Vida — October 5, 2013 @ 4:22 pm

  9. You were right—he sure speaks it true. Stephen King (of all ppl) also did to my way of thinking in his book “On Writing” which is part autobiography, part how-to guide. You might check it out someday. Glad you’re still writing. Enjoy your blog entries as I did your book.

    Comment by Margret Raines — October 5, 2013 @ 5:29 pm

  10. Ever since I was a child, I wrote. Poems, letters, stories. Nothing ever amounted to much. Before I started blogging, I’d tell stories at work. People would say, “You ought to be a writer.” To which I’d reply, “But I have nothing to say.” Which I don’t, but I write anyway. Just because I like to put words down just to see what happens.

    Comment by cynthia r chase — October 5, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

  11. well said. incredible poem.

    Comment by sharon stoltzfus — October 7, 2013 @ 9:43 am

  12. Bingo. Like I was saying, when I simply wanted to write I stared at blank paper frustrated. But when I have to write to feel sane the words pour out of nowhere.

    But I had a thought a while back. The words, once written and considered, circle back and affect my thinking, my outlook, and therefore my living. So even though no one reads the actual words I put down, some part of them, which is some part of me, is being read not by the many who buy but by the few who know me. So even (or especially) my most personal efforts are not kept completely to myself even though I’ve torn out, crumpled and tossed the page.

    Comment by Eric — October 7, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

  13. Ira, speaking for myself as a reader, I would enjoy meeting you in person and even have you sign “Growing Up Amish” novel because your written work touched my heart and soul. Compare it to a touchstone in significance. Similar to your desire to go to the area in Europe where Amish people were killed publicly. For whatever reason, a reader feels a connection with an author!

    Comment by Martha Staton — October 7, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

  14. I just read your blog about finding Bukowski. I thought you might enjoy the following quote:

    “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.” Winston Churchill

    With what little writing experience I have, I would wholeheartedly agree.

    Comment by Barb — October 7, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

  15. I look forward to reading your blog because I never know what to expect. I especially enjoyed this one. I have a daughter who seems to bubble with creativity and sometimes she writes. What she writes comes from deep inside her and she only writes when it is time to put it in writing.

    What you said about some “Christians” who get a bit uptight about what is sometimes written and they don’t agree with it, I have found to be very true. Not only Christians but lots of people who can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

    I wish you the best and I am looking forward to the next blog.

    Comment by mary maarsen — October 8, 2013 @ 5:04 am

  16. Oh, where to begin?

    Let’s start with Bukowski, the poor sot. I thought I’d read a bit more of his works to get a feel for this new love of yours. My impression: The man was a walking scab. I wonder if he ever knew happiness, joy, peace? If he ever saw anything pure and lovely? I’ll give him this much, he wrote from his guts. Dark and dank as they were. Each of the poems I read of his reeked of pain and suffering. Poor man. The one about the extrication of the family jewels made me gulp. Yeowch! All to get back at a wayward woman. Yeah, that was worth it.

    There was one particular part that I got, really got from his poem on writing. “…if you first have to read…you’re not ready…” Ownership. You own what you write. If you’re looking to be liked, to make everybody happy, to purposely be offensive, or to make people hate you, forget it. You no longer own your writing, somebody else does. You no longer own yourself. You’re not free.

    You wrote you had difficulty putting into words what writing meant to you. No, you didn’t. You were very clear from the get-go that your writing would come when it was time and that it would come from your heart. That you couldn’t force it. Bukowski validated you, but he didn’t say what you could not.

    “And I could only shake my head.” There you go again, being a little snip. Your dad has every right to decide who was a great writer and who wasn’t. And what exactly is a great writer or great writing? Amish romance novels, memoirs, technical writing, Mother Goose? Everyone has the freedom to decide what is good to them.

    Ira, can you lighten up on Christians a little? I happen to be one and know a lot of good people who are, as well. Like you! Why worry about what “many” Christians are thinking or who they’re judging? Your concern is who your judging. Bub! Keep in mind, Christians are children of God. They are not perfect people. Just read the Bible, it’s full of rejects, womanizers, liars, thiefs, etc. But all are still loved deeply by God, and so was Bukowski.

    I like writing with grit in it. Cussing doesn’t bother me nor does a person being honest about their lives and the things they’ve done. But if it gets too seedy, obnoxious, dumb or worst of all, shallow I close the book and move on. What I put in my head is my responsibility and if it’s something I don’t like, if it leaves a cruddy feeling in my heart, it’s history.

    Truth. Who can speak it? Well, there’s truth and there’s feelings and opinions. I tend to believe truth comes from God’s corner. If it isn’t something God said or is all for then it’s feelings and opinions.

    There was no way I could let the following go by without a comment. “I don’t know if I’ll invite you in.” “I invited them inside then, and the women didn’t seem too horrified.” Listen Ira, 98% of women have absolutely no expectations of a tidy house when they visit a single guy. We expect to see empty take-out boxes on the coffee table, dust on the bookshelves, dirty dishes in the sink, and the most pitiful decor on the face of the earth. We simply walk over the weeks worth of dirty laundry on the floor and ignore the un-made bed should we cross it on the way to the bathroom with the toothpaste speckled mirror. Bleach spots on dark towels, books resembling stepping stones, unspeakable odors coming from the fridge, all par for the course.

    When my husband and I were engaged I would pop into his apt. on occasion. (I preferred my place. You’ll see why in a minute. Or maybe not.) One day I noticed his toilet had lush vegetation growing in it. It was the perfect fish bowl if there ever was one. Just needed a fish or two. “Oh my gosh! Don’t you ever clean your toilet?” He sheepishly replied, “What?” What indeed!

    Comment by Francine — October 11, 2013 @ 2:27 am

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