The Writing Life: My Failures as Bukowski or — How I Prepped For a Life of Chaos by P. Casey Telesk

The small kitchen was packed with unfamiliar people and seventies decor. I’d made friends with one person, though, a younger guy who’d asked me for one of my cigarettes because he only had Camels but loved my brand. Later in the night, when I saw him go to light one of his cigarettes, I pulled it out of his mouth, threw it on the kitchen floor, and crushed it under my shoe before handing him one of my American Spirits.

The large, surly gentleman, whom I’d met earlier the night when he was bragging about his bouncing gig at an underage club called Fagan’s, took serious offense to my actions, even though he was just a guest, the same as I was.

“Clean it up,” he barked, inflating his already large chest.

I looked at him sidelong, and his voice again broke through the laughter of the group.

“I said, clean it up!”

“Okay.” I shrugged him off and retrieved the broom. As I began cleaning, though, he continued his reproach.

“Yeah, that’s right — you clean that shit up.”

“Okay, man. I’m cleaning it up,” I said, trying my best to ignore his arrogance. “You can stop now.”

“Just shut up and keep cleaning,” he chuckled, looking around, searching for an audience.

“Listen,” I said as I swept the last of the cigarette into the pan and stood. “This isn’t about who has the bigger dick. I cleaned it up, so let it go.”

He let out another goofy, self-satisfied chuckle and asked — “Why don’t you ask my girlfriend how big my dick is?”

Regardless of his physical size, and even though I had absolutely no idea who he, or his girlfriend, was I responded by saying the first thing I thought of. “Yeah?” I said with a grin. “Why don’t you ask her how big mine is?”

The punch was very sudden, and hard, sending me backwards across the kitchen. But that’s a small price to pay for a story. And that’s all I was searching for in my drinking, really — a story, an interesting situation.

Like the one time I woke up in a pew of Parker Hill Community Church in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, still drunk on tequila and barely able to remember how I’d ended up there on a Sunday morning as the band began rehearsals for morning mass. I’d lost my keys, and decided to walk the four miles to a friend’s house in the dead of winter. I was freezing when I saw the church, and the door happened to be open. So, I lay down in a pew and slept.

Then there was that time I got arrested for kicking in the door of a body shop because I was blackout drunk during Hurricane Irene, and can only assume I was trying to escape the rain. I’ve been hiding from storms such as these my whole life.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve felt an emptiness in the core of my being, like a small, hungry rodent in my belly that gnaws at me even still.

Nothing eats at me more than the bad moments, like the time I dragged my girlfriend across a parking lot by her hair because I’d drunk a bottle of whiskey at a party and on the ride home she told me we couldn’t go get something to eat. I don’t remember this, but that’s the story.

And I have a million like these, but I’ve never written about any of them, and while some are funny, they are all sad. I didn’t know any other way to write, or to live, than under the influence of a substance. I liked writing on amphetamines or coke the best. Writing on speed is efficient. Writing on opiates is not so efficient, and writing while drunk is just stupid. It’s never a good idea. Still, though, I would find myself drinking whiskey at 8 o’clock in the morning while trying to write the first draft of my manuscript.

I wasn’t drinking because I thought that’s what writers do; I was drinking because I’m an addict. Those aren’t words I often utter, but no matter which way I try to cut it — I can’t escape the truth of my addiction. I enjoyed telling people of my escapades — funny, depraved, or violent — only because I thought it made me seem more like a writer, which is an utterly silly idea.

Luckily, I’d prepped myself for a life of chaos. I knew very early in that I wasn’t going to have kids, or get married. I feared that I would turn out like my alcoholic mother, who left when I was ten. But, it also prepared me for a life as a writer.

In June 2012, at 25 years old, I was accepted into the Wilkes Creative Writing MA/MFA Program. I had no one to provide for except myself, and I was free to pursue writing. The first time I quit drinking was shortly before I entered the MFA program, vowing to not embarrass myself in front of my peers, or faculty. But it was at Wilkes that I began having the occasional beer again.

In February on 2013, my brother killed his best friend in a drunk driving accident. My brother’s best friend, my friend, who was brother to an even closer friend — his name was Mike and he was gone and my brother had killed him. I collapsed under the weight of this tragedy. Though it was not my burden to bear, I still felt that huge weight of guilt, pressing down on me like a rock under hypergravity. We all do this at times, I think — take on burdens that aren’t ours to bear.

But there it was, pressing so hard I could feel it in my bones, and slowly I began falling apart. One month after the tragedy, I’d already given up on my manuscript, but found myself in a van with a few peers and one of my teachers, heading to Boston for that year’s AWP conference. I remember the car ride clearly, when Nancy, my teacher, asked how my novel was going. I lied, saying that I had 75 pages complete, but that I was unsure about my future as a writer. She told me I needed to finish my book, that she thought the premise was an excellent idea. She’s done this from the day I met her. She still pops in every once in a while to say “Good job. Keep moving and doing good things.” There are many others like this, and I am grateful for every single one of them.

Boston itself, though, still remains a booze-soaked blur of embarrassing moments and bad ideas, and if it weren’t for my friend Nick, there’s a chance I might have ended up dead on that trip. I started drinking as soon as I arrived, and I didn’t stop the entire time. Each shot, every beer, was a jackhammer against the pain I felt — for my brother, for Mike, and his sister, and his little son.

One of my molars cracked in the car ride home, my stomach still sick from three days worth of booze, and I tongue at that broken tooth still as a reminder of that trip, everything I was then, and everything I never want to be again.

I’ve found myself kicking around rocks at the bottom of pits like these more times than I care to count, but I’ll never forget the people who reached down to pull me out.

Whether I was crawling, or dragged kicking and screaming, I fought every step of the way down the path that led me to become the writer I am today. I made the decision to abandon the idea of making a living, and instead found a way to make a life.

The other day, my therapist asked me what pisses me off.

“When people don’t do the work, yet want the things I have,” I said.

And here is what I meant by this: I watch as people publish books they’ve written in a month, a week, sometimes even days, and yet I literally break my own heart each time I put words down on the page. When you are the product of an alcoholic home, like I am, nothing is ever good enough. It can always be better. So, even as I’ve watched my life crumble before me, I’ve fought through all of those feelings of not being good enough, to try to become the best writer I’m capable of being, to write the best work I’m capable of writing, and I have emerged stronger, better, and wiser for it.

So here’s my advice to you: Whether you are writing genre fiction, creative nonfiction, screenplays, literary fiction, or good old-fashioned fart jokes — do the work necessary to make the writing as good as you possibly can. Because, if you are willing to settle for anything less than your absolute best — why even write? Why waste your time, or your reader’s time?

Someone once told me that when we decide to pick up a pen and write, we’re entering a conversation with Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and all the other great writers throughout history, and the only goal we have is to avoid sounding like an asshole.

I tell my students that writing is a way to take inventory of our lives, to make sense of the world in which we live, the worlds that we come from. This is important to note, because If we don’t know who we were in the past, we can’t understand who we are today, and if we can’t understand who were are today, we can never fix what’s broken, to become the person we want to be. And, as a writer, you can’t do any of these things if you don’t first learn how to write well. And learning how to write well takes time.

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