william saroyan | part II

13 01 2010

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 205 | January 13, 2010


Further Notes…

  • The overwhelming response to the previous Saroyan posting suggests I add a few more words…more memories. Including a slightly excerpted text of “A Writer’s Declaration” which many readers have asked about.
  • Judging a book by its cover. (Sample, above.) I am a reader, lover, and a collector of books. I know the respect they deserve, especially in the hands of collectors. But as a writer and sometimes teacher, I know too that some books, through time and constant reference, take on the ‘the holy.’ Their future value (‘rare’) as first editions, signed, mint condition, etc…none of this matters. Certain holy books are pulled from the shelves time and again, sometimes frantically, to be read when I need them. They show the ‘suffering’ in my hands in transit to desks, reading chairs, lecterns, not to mention the wear and tear of loaning them, passing them on to the hands of others. I make no apologies for their haggard appearance. They are vulnerable, yes. And the sadder they look (pages loosening from the binding—the worst!) the more beloved they are to me.
  • Have I emphasized enough how important writers like Saroyan are to writers first starting out? To writers, depressed, despondent, discouraged? To teachers trying to lead students through the entanglement of ‘literature’?
  • Henry Miller is another who can both encourage and save a writer’s life. (I was lucky. I had both Miller and Saroyan at my side from the beginning. Where they remain today.)
  • In praising the ethnic connection I experienced through Saroyan’s writing, I neglected to mention the writings of the Greek-American (Chicago) writer, Harry Mark Petrakis, who was equally important in bringing the human spirit alive in his stories that hummed with passion—and seeing that the same spirit entered you. Petrakis, who became and remains a close friend, someone I dedicated my second collection of stories to. Petrakis—I promise to get back to him in more detail sometime soon.
  • There is a quote from Act I of Saroyan’s play, “The Time of Your Life” that infuses my work. Appears, on one or two occasions word for word in my writing. Not to forget that (this):
  • In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding-place and let it be free and unashamed. Place in matter and in flesh the least of the values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption. Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world. Ignore the obvious, for it is unworthy of the clear eye and the kindly heart. Be the inferior of no man, nor of any man be the superior. Remember that every man is a variation of yourself. No man’s guilt is not yours, nor is any man’s innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungodliness or evil. These, understand. Have no shame in being kindly and gentle, but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret. In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it. –norbert blei

by William Saroyan

On October 15, 1934, my first book, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stones, was published. The year 1934 seems quite near, but the fact remains that it was twenty years ago, as I write. Many things happened in those twenty years, several of them to me.

I didn’t earn one dollar by any means other than writing. I wrote short stories, plays, novels, essays, poems, book reviews, miscellaneous comment, letters to editors, private letters, and songs.

Nothing that I wrote was written to order, on assignment, or for money, although a good deal of what I wrote happened to earn money. If an editor liked a story as I had written it, he could buy it. If he wanted parts of it written over, I did not do that work. Nobody did it. One editor took liberties with a short piece about Christmas, and the writer of a cook book to which I had written a free Preface added a few lines by way of making me out a soldier-patriot. I protested to the editor and to the writer of the cook book, but of course the damage had been done. During the Second World War I wrote no propaganda of any kind, although I was invited several times to do so. The point is that for twenty years I have been an American writer who has been entirely free and independent.

I consider the past twenty years the first half of my life as a published writer, and the next twenty I consider the second half. At that time I shall be sixty-six years old, which can be very old, or not. I expect to be more creative in the next twenty years than I was in the first twenty, even though I start with a number of handicaps. To begin with, I owe so much in back taxes that it is very nearly impossible arithmetically to even the score by writing, and I have acquired other personal, moral, and financial responsibilities.

I have never been subsidized, I have never accepted money connected with a literary prize or award, I have never been endowed, and I have never received a grant or fellowship. A year or two after my first book was published I was urged by friends to file an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship. Against my better judgment I filed an application, which was necessarily if not deliberately haphazard. How should I know what I wanted to write, for instance? I couldn’t possibly describe it. My application was turned down and I began to breathe freely again.

I am head over heels in debt. I expect to get out of debt by writing, or not at all. I have no savings account, no stocks or bonds, no real estate, no insurance, no cash, and no real property that is convertible into anything like a sum of money that might be useful. I simply have got to hustle for a living. I mention these matters impersonally, as facts, and not to arouse sympathy. I don’t want any.

Had my nature been practical I might at this time know financial \ security, as it’s called. There is nothing wrong with such security, I suppose, but I prefer another kind. I prefer to recognize the truth that I must work, and to believe that I can.

I squandered a great deal of money that I earned as a writer and I lost a lot of it gambling. It seems to have been my nature to squander and to gamble, that’s all. I gave some away, perhaps a great deal. I am j not unaware of the possible meaning of the discomfort I have felt  when I have had money, and the compulsion I have had to get rid of it somehow or other. I think I have felt the need to be only a writer a writing writer, and not a success of any kind.

The ability or compulsion to hoard money has always seemed to me a complicated if not offensive thing. And yet I have always had sympathy for those who have been experts at hoarding, at legal means by which not to pay taxes, at timely thrusts into new and profitable areas of money-making, such as investments, real estate, inventions, oil, uranium, government contracts, the backing of plays, manufacturing, and marketing. The noticeable shrewdness of such people has always amused me, even when I myself have been the party to be outwitted. …

Before my first book was published I was not a drinker, but soon after it came out I discovered the wisdom of drinking, and I think this is something worth looking into for a moment.

In 1935 I drank moderately, and traveled to Europe for the first time, but the following nine years, until I was drafted into the Army, I drank as much as I liked, and I frequently drank steadily for nine or ten hours at a time.

I was seldom drunk, however. I enjoyed the fun of drinking and talking loudly with friends—writers, painters, sculptors, newspapermen, and the girls and women we knew in San Francisco.

Drinking with good companions can be a good thing for a writer, but let a writer heed this humble and perhaps unnecessary warning: stop drinking when drinking tends to be an end in itself, for that is a useless end. I believe I have learned a lot while I have been drinking with friends, just as most of us may say we have learned a lot in sleep. There is, however, a recognizable limit to what may be learned by means of drinking.

In the writing that I have done during the past twenty years, what do I regret?

Nothing. Not one word.

Did I write enough?

No. No writer ever writes enough.

Might I have written differently? More intelligently, for instance?


First, I always tried my best, as I understand trying. Second, I believe I was quite intelligent all the time.

Then, what about the theory of certain critics and readers that my writing is unrealistic and sentimental?

Well, I think they are mistaken. In writing that is effective I don’t think anything is unrealistic. As for my own writing, I think it has always been profoundly realistic if not ever superficially so. I don’t think my writing is sentimental either, although it is a very sentimental thing to be a human being.

As I write, I am back in San Francisco, where I lived when my first book was published, where I have not lived in six or seven years, and the day is the thirteenth of October. I drove up from Malibu two days ago for a visit of ten or eleven days while my house on the beach is being painted inside and out. I did not drive to San Francisco in order to be here on the twentieth anniversary of the publication of my first book, but I shall be here on that day nevertheless.

Already I have walked in the various neighborhoods of San Francisco I have known, to notice again the various houses in which I have lived: 348 Carl Street, 1707 Divisadero, 2378 Sutter, 123 Natoma: and the various places in which I worked before I had had a story published in a national magazine: various branch offices of the Postal Telegraph Company—on Market Street in the Palace Hotel Building, on Powell Street at Market, on Taylor at Market in the Golden Gate Theatre Building, and at 405 Brannan, near Third. I was a clerk and teletype operator in the first three offices, but I was the manager of the office on Brannan. I have always been a little proud of that, for I was the youngest manager of a Postal Telegraph branch office in America, nineteen years old and without a high school diploma. …

It was at 348 Carl Street twenty years ago on this day, October 13, that I opened a package from Random House and saw a copy of my first book. That was a hell of a moment. I was so excited I couldn’t roll a Bull Durham cigarette. After three tries I finally made it, and began to inhale and exhale a little madly as I examined the preposterous and very nearly unbelievable object of art and merchandise. What a book, what a cover, what a title page, what words, what a photograph—now just watch the women swarm around. For a young writer does write in order to expect pretty women to swarm around.

Alas, the swarmers aren’t often pretty. This is a mystery that continues to baffle me. Pretty women swarm around fat little men who own and operate small businesses. They swarm around chiropractors who are full of talk about some of their interesting cases and achievements. They swarm around young men who wear black shirts and have five buttons on the sleeves of their sport coats, who have no visible means of support, who spend hours chatting amiably about last night’s preposterous trivia as if it were history.

Pretty women swarm around everybody but writers.

Plain, intelligent women somewhat swarm around writers.

But it wasn’t only to have pretty women swarm around that I hustled my first book into print. It wasn’t that alone by a long shot.

I also meant to revolutionize American writing.

In the early thirties the word revolutionize enjoyed popularity and was altogether respectable, but a special poll invented by a special statistician would be the only means today by which to measure my success in revolutionizing American writing. To pretend that my writing hasn’t had any effect at all on American writing, however, would be inaccurate. The trouble is that for the most part my writing influenced unpublished writers who remained unpublished, and to measure that kind of an influence calls for a lot of imagination and daring. The good writers that my writing influenced were already published, some of them long published, but the truth is that my writing did influence their writing, too, for I began to notice the improvement almost immediately. And I didn’t notice it in short stories alone, I noticed it in novels and plays, and even in movies.

What did my writing have that might be useful to writing in general?


I think I demonstrated that if you have a writer, you have writing, and that the writer himself is of greater importance than his writing— until he quits, or is dead.

Thus, if you are a writer, you do not have to kill yourself every time you write a story, a play, or a novel.

But why did I want to revolutionize American writing?

I had to, because I didn’t like it, and wanted to.

And why, as a writer, was I unwilling to act solemn? Didn’t I know that unless I acted solemn the big critics would be afraid to write about my writing? I knew. I refused to act solemn because I didn’t feel solemn. I didn’t feel I ought to feel solemn, or even dignified, because I knew acting dignified was only a shadow removed from being pompous. Some writers are naturally solemn, dignified, or pompous, but that doesn’t mean that they are also naturally great, or even effective.

There simply isn’t any mysterious connection between solemnity and great writing. Some great writers had great solemnity, but most of them had almost none. They had something else.

What is this other thing?

I think it is an obsession to get to the probable truth about man, nature, and art, straight through everything to the very core of one’s own being.

What is this probable truth?

It changes from day to day, certainly from year to year. You can measure the change from decade to decade, and the reason you can measure it is that there have been writers (and others) who have been obsessed about it, too.

To become free is the compulsion of our time—free of everything that is useless and false, however deeply established in man’s fable. But this hope of freedom, this need of it, does not for a moment mean that man is to go berserk. Quite the contrary, since freedom, real freedom, true freedom, carries the life and fable of man nearer and nearer to order, beauty, grace, and meaning—all of which must always remain correctable in details—revised, improved, refined, enlarged, extended.

Intelligence is arriving into the fable of the life of man. It isn’t necessarily welcome, though, certainly not in most quarters. In order to be a little less unwelcome it must be joined by humor, out of which the temporary best has always come. You simply cannot call the human race a dirty name unless you smile when you do so. The calling of the name may be necessary and the name itself may be temporarily accurate, but not to smile at the time is a blunder that nullifies usefulness, for without humor there is no hope, and man could no more live without hope than he could without the earth underfoot.

Life rules the world, impersonal and free life. The anonymous living tell their story every day, with the help of professional or amateur writers, but the greatest story-teller of all is time and change, or death. But death is not our doom and not our enemy. Next to birth it is our best gift, and next to truth it is our best friend.

I am back in San Francisco on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of my first book—the beginning of my life as a writer, as a force in the life of my time, as a voting representative of my anonymous self and of any and all others whose aspirations parallel my own—to live creatively, to live honorably, to hurt no one insofar as possible, to enjoy mortality, to fear neither death nor immortality, to cherish fools and failures even more than wise men and saints since there are more of them, to believe, to hope, to work, and to do these things with humor.

To say yes, and not to say no.

What advice have l 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.

What about courses in writing in colleges and universities?

Useless, they are entirely useless.

The writer is a spiritual anarchist, as in the depth of his soul every man is. He is discontented with everything and everybody. The writer is everybody’s best friend and only true enemy—the good and great enemy. He neither walks with the multitude nor cheers wit]h them The writer who is a writer is a rebel who never stops. He does not conform for the simple reason that there is nothing yet worth conforming to. When there is something half worth conforming to he will not conform to that, either, or half conform to it. He won’t even rest or sleep as other people rest and sleep. When he is dead he’ll probably be dead as others are dead, but while he is alive he is alive as no one else is, not even another writer. The writer who is a writer is also a fool. He is the easiest man in the world to belittle, ridicule, dismiss, and scorn: and that also is precisely as it should be. He is also mad, measurably so, but saner than all others, with the best sanity, the only sanity worth bothering about—the living, creative, vulnerable, valorous, unintimidated, and arrogant sanity of a free man.

I am a writer who is a writer, as I have been for twenty ears, and expect to be for twenty more.

I am here to stay, and so is everybody else. No explosive is going to be employed by anybody on anybody. Knowing this, believing this, the writer who is a writer makes plans to watch his health casually, and to write his writing with more purposeful intelligence, humor, and love.

I am proud of my twenty years, undecorated as they may be. I am proud to be a writer, the writer I am, and I don’t care what anybody else is proud of.

[From: THE WILLIAM SAROYAN READER, Braziller, Inc., 1958]

william saroyan | saroyan lives & breathes

10 01 2010

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.