NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 204 | January 10, 2010
from the Blei archives:
Saroyan Lives & Breathes
August 31 is the birthday of William Saroyan, who was born in Fresno, California in 1908 and died in 1981.
Anyone who knows me as a writer, teacher, friend, knows that Saroyan has been a big part of my life since I began to write. A mentor, a role model, an influence, call him what you will. I found him (first) in THE HUMAN COMEDY, where the main character, young boy, named Homer, was a telegraph messenger–a perfect witness to the joys and sorrows of man.
In time he helped me realize the depth and life of the ethnic culture in America, and how it could inform one’s storytelling art–setting, plot, character, theme–to last a lifetime. If Saroyan had the Armenians in Fresno; I had the Bohemians (Czechs) in Chicago. And all the other ethnic neighborhood cultures that I began to explore, move in and out of, turn into personal essays for Chicago newspapers, and short stories for literary magazines. There would be no books of personal essays by me called CHI TOWN and NEIGHBORHOOD; no collections of short stories called The GHOST OF SANDBURG, and THE HOUR OF THE SUNSHINE NOW; no novels, ADVENTURES IN AN AMERICAN’S LITERATURE and THE SECOND NOVEL, or works-in-progress without Saroyan.
I even adopted his walrus mustache early in my writing life and still display this once brown, now gray-white, [now white and unruly] old European whisker banner, proudly for over 40 years–razor free. There’s a discolored, tattered newspaper photograph of Saroyan which has been on the wall above my desk since 1976–a profile of him: left hand in his back pocket, head bowed, tilted forward, right hand tipping his fedora. And a big Saroyan smile under his mustache. He’s gesturing “hello” or “goodbye.” He was always saying hello or goodbye. I USED TO BELIEVE I HAD FOREVER NOW I’M NOT SO SURE was one of one of his books. “Everything fascinates Saroyan,” said his publishers, “a pebble on the beach, writing and writers, a stray dog, communism and capitalism, gamblers and poets, the streets of New York, the mountains of Armenia.”
I longed to meet him, damn it! But at least had the chance to write reviews of his later works for major newspapers while he was still alive. And I was certain he read them and knew there was a young-writer-kid out in the Midwest who loved his style, worshipped his words, believed in his writing regardless if major critics on the East Coast thought he was sentimental, passé, pretty much dead.
“It is not necessary for my stories, my writing, to be chosen by the critics. It is not necessary for it to last forever. It is not necessary for it to be great. And I myself don’t have to get to heaven. But necessary or not, I write my writing, and it is there. It is apart from any school. It is supported by no group of erudite literary critics. It is acclaimed by no critic at all. It has relatively so few readers, it might be said to have no readers at all. But for some reason, perhaps a preposterous reason, I believe in it. With all of its terrible flaws and limitations, including horseplay and hooliganism, and in spite of its ineptitudes. inconsistencies, and disorganization, I believe in it, and I believe in it for this reason alone, that my writing is simultaneously uniquely my own, and not mine at all….It doesn’t need to be great, it only needs to happen.”
For a young writer starting out (for any writer with thirty or more years of literary battle scars, and still more blood to let) Saroyan was, and remains, one of the few writers who consistently delivers hope to one’s desk, day and night.
I still read from his piece, “A Writer’s Declaration” (THE WILLIAM SAROYAN READER, 1958) whenever I teach a Beginning Writer’s Workshop:
“What advice have I for the potential writer?
I have none, for anybody is a potential writer, and the writer who is a writer needs no advice and seeks none…The writer is a spiritual anarchist, as in the depth of his soul every man is.”
I carried his first collection of short stories, THE DARING YOUNG MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE, all through Europe on my first odyssey of “writer in search of himself.” A very young, unpublished writer, unsure of himself, who knew Paris, was one of those rites of passage all writers had to make. A place to begin.
There was a comfort to Saroyan’s words. A confirmation that no other life but a writer’s life had meaning:
“Years ago when I was getting a thorough grammar school education in my home town I found out that stories were something very odd that some sort of men had been turning out (for some odd reason) for hundreds of years, and that there were rules governing the writing of stories.
“I immediately began to study all the classic rules, including Ring Lardner’s, and in the end I discovered that the rules were wrong.
“The trouble was, they had been leaving me out, and as far as I could tell was the most important element in the matter, so I made some new rules.”
That, for openers, from the original preface to THE DARING YOUNG MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE, published in 1934. If you’ve never read it, or don’t own it, I recommend the edition published in l964: AFTER 30 YEARS: THE DARING YOUNG MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE, which contains the original preface (4 pages) plus the new one he wrote specifically for the 30th anniversary edition (129 pages).
So you’re a young, wannabe writer, alive on the streets of Paris, day and night, never before feeling so alive in your skin…cafes and flowers and art and boulevards and book stalls along the Seine, wine and food and women and language, jazz, and… it’s so overwhelming you can’t find the words to describe it.
So late at night, down streets, over bridges, sights, sounds, the city of light, a search for Miller’s, noir neighborhood, Rue St. Denis, a walk down Montparnasse looking for Hemingway’s Le Dome, a late outdoor café–coffee and a French cigarette…hours and hours…finally finding the way to the door of your fifth floor walk-up in St. Michel, the sullen concierge with the cat on her desk lifts her tired head as you bid her good night in French, ascend the narrow staircase to the broken #3 on the door of your tiny room, turn the key in the lock, step in, and throw open the shutters wide to the streets of Paris at night, inhale the stars, pour some cheap red wine…breathe it all in…taste…then open the book of Saroyan again…to confirm you are where you belong…waiting for your own words to come.
“A writer can have, ultimately, one of two styles: he can write in a manner that implies that death is inevitable, or he can write in a manner that implies that death is not inevitable. Every style ever employed by a writer has been influenced by one or another of these attitudes toward death.”
“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.