Saroyan’s memoir, The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, reads very differently than I’d expected. For one, he lacks humility, which I’d assumed from the title would be pervasive. Nay. For another, his writing is to me full of contradiction. On one page he’ll call his school teachers stupid and untalented, and above all how they bored him, and on another he’ll recall that their earnest recognition of his talent elevated him from anonymity. As a friend of mine once said, “Only the boring are bored.”
And yet I can’t stop reading. The writing is direct and full of power. Saroyan reflects on the writing life in surprising pauses among his vignettes. In the chapter “The Fire,” he tells the story of a childhood friend who designs and wears paper chaps that are set ablaze as a prank.
The boy in the paper chaps was admired by his friends, and then one of them, surely as a joke, lighted a match and put it to the paper of the chaps. In an instant the boy was on fire and running.
Jim Lundy himself, seventeen years old, on his way to work at Graf’s Hardware, caught up with him, stopped him abruptly, and put out the fire with his hands. . . . He didn’t bawl out the boys for what had happened, but a week or so later when they stopped him in the empty lot next to my house on his way home from work to ask him a question about baseball he told them a few things about imbecility and fire, too. The two don’t go together, he said.
Power goes with genius only.
A writer’s style, his achievement of personal language, his employment of form comes from many things with disaster and death as much a part of them as grace and life. A writer cannot hate fire because it sometimes burns a man, or water because it sometimes strangles him. He must hate the ignorance which puts fire and water to killing, and it is the same with any other great power come to pass.
From an early age, Saroyan is certain he’ll be a writer, and he is sure he’ll succeed. At first, though, his voice and his ambition don’t line up.
The foolishness of my writing in comparison with what I wanted to write infuriated me for years. Greatness, greatness, greatness is what I wanted and insisted upon, only to notice that everything I wrote was small and miserable. I couldn’t understand it. My soul was great, it was astonishingly great, and yet it was captured in a little, feeble body and could not get itself free. I had in my soul the greatest truths to tell, but when I came to the work of telling them I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t find a starting place. I couldn’t work as I wished to work. The very eagerness with which I went to work and the very enormity of the size of what I expected to achieve stopped me entirely, so that I was not able to put down, often, so much as one word, but sat and stared at the blank paper, rejecting one beginning after another. Where could I begin?
I was long years discovering the secret that it does not matter at all where one begins, and that it is not necessary for anything one writes to be instantly great, the important thing is for a [hu]man to resign himself to the truth that he is only a [hu]man, and to work, and then to find in the rare moments of luck the greatness which is not his alone, the greatness which comes to pass when he, out of faith and plain labor, excels himself, his body, and his soul, and becomes for an instant a part of enormity, of limitless power, of miracle, and of timelessness.
We build the faith and plain labor by getting to our desks every day. Saroyan goes on to write well about having a schedule.
The matter of schedule must be carefully considered. It is the key to creative achievement. Mozart worked on schedule all is life, and so did Shakespeare. Being on schedule, they were able to achieve great things quickly and easily. To be creatively on schedule is the most important thing for the artist. What does it mean to be on schedule? That is to say, what, precisely, am I talking about?
It is this:
Through accident, through luck, by design, or as a consequence of long years of earnest trying, a [hu] man transports his soul from where it was in the beginning to a realm in which the action of all creativeness is in operation, and consequently he himself is involved, by now quite naturally, in the schedule of the miracle of life itself, so that anything he does is virtually done for him. It is done swiftly and magnificently. The [hu]man himself, as a [hu]man, does little. He goes along with the schedule, as if his soul had latched onto an immortal means of transportation, himself nothing more than a free rider. It is impossible to otherwise account for the music of Mozart or the plays of Shakespeare. These are works which came to pass as enormous events of nature come to pass. The [hu]man to whom this latching onto schedule happens is both fortunate and unfortunate, for once the latching on has taken place he is a [hu]man who may never again be merely an animal body in a material world, and he therefore can never again be satisfied with the simple pleasures of an animal body.
Any [hu]man who meets the schedule, latches onto it, goes along with it, keeps it, helps it, must in the end also be driven forward by it, and to be driven can often be a painful thing. As there are few [humans] involved in a similar manner with the schedule, such a [hu]man is necessarily more alone than ever, too.
Greatness. Pain. Schedule. These are a few of Saroyan’s views on these subjects, and his life as a writer reflected a large degree of all. Inspirational. Starting Monday I’m resuming my two-hour mornings, five days a week.