Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Death of Any Man Diminishes Me, But at Times, the Obituary Buoys Me up

The effects on your writing life and sensory memory of Ernest Miller Hemingway are profound to the point where you still cannot write a first draft of anything without seeing some traces of his influence.  Through the years, this presence has improved to the point where the most significant signal is your use of the word "and" to connect independent clauses.

Hemingway, himself, was a shadow in your life because a son of his was a classmate at UCLA, who showed EMH a parody you'd written of The Old Man and the Sea, which EMH said was "pretty good stuff," which you took as high praise, given the things young Hemingway showed you from the old man in his letters.

After a time, you began to see why you were drawn to Hemingway's work, in particular because you knew you could pick out his narrative voice from any blind sample, a matter of some importance for you because of your longstanding belief in the power of voice.  You also appreciated EMH's assessment of Mark Twain, whose voice you treasured the way opera buffs prize and contest with one another over the power and resonance of male tenors and baritones, female sopranos.

You found EMH's contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, more to your liking for tone, themes, and depth of psychological insights, all of which you hoped to incorporate into your own fiction, once you understood how.  In the long run, you felt a closer kinship to Fitzgerald's work and because you'd sat across the street, staring at the place where he lived at the time of his premature death, and because you'd had opportunities to chat with persons who'd known him.

Yet another writer of that time intrigued you, a distinctive voice being one of his more distinctive characteristics, but also because he seemed to write more about things you felt closer to hand for you.  He also seemed to you to be saying Screw plot.  This was a matter of some great significance to you, because it was borne home to you on several critical occasions that plotting was not your strong suit as a writer, nor was it ever likely to be.

This author, William Saroyan (1908-81), seemed to be more accessible through his writings, by which you mean that you were aware of a person beyond the work, no small matter of importance to you because you wished--and still wish--to be the rudder of the person doing the writing work.
Here was a man who knew story, was able to introduce tangible themes and their consequences into his narratives, but was not too preoccupied to pause for a taste of melon or a more elaborate picnic on the way to delivering a solution.

You met him only once, here in Santa Barbara, where you'd agreed to participate in a writers' conference only after you'd heard that he was to be the keynote speaker.  Even at that, your meeting was brief.  "I'm so glad to meet you, Mr. Saroyan,"  you told him.  "Bill,"  he said.  Please, call me Bill.  And now, you must excuse me."  He made a gesture suggesting he needed to get with all deliberate speed to a restroom.  "Dragon,"  he said.

At which point, you returned to your place at a table prepared for dinner guest participants in the conference.  One of the sponsors of the conference was a local winery.  Their products were in generous presence.  You began to partake, comfortable in the first-name rapport established between you and a great favorite.  Mindful that the empty seat at the table, just to your immediate right, had the name tag, W. Saroyan.

Fifteen minutes elapsed; no W. Saroyan.  Helping yourself to another glass of pinor noir, you remarked, "He must have enormous kidneys."

Another half hour.  Salad plates cleared.  Authentic Santa Maria Tri-tip served.  Still no W. Saroyan.

At length, a troubled young woman, assistant radiating from her earnest face and pointedly neat blouse, suit skirt, and single rope of pearls, approached the director of the conference, herself no longer as comfortable nor at ease as you.  The assistant bent to ear level, whispered.  The director's face reflected the winter of her discontent.  She nodded, folded her napkin, placed it at the edge of her setting, stood, approached you.

"Mister Saroyan,"  she told you in a stage whisper, "is at the Elk's Club, drinking doubles and telling the bartender to go fuck himself for refusing to keep pouring.  I'm afraid he's in no condition to give his speech this evening and I'm asking you now to step up for him."  She watched you for a long moment.  "If you don't mind my saying so, you're going to need some coffee."

You did, indeed, need some coffee.  Even so, you felt the need, midway through your presentation, to sit, which you did on the very lip of the stage, a hand-held microphone in your hand as your desperation caused you to ad lib, "Let's get comfortable and take off the gloves, shall we?"

In subsequent years, you've had the delightful opportunity to serve on the same faculty as Bill's, for he, by his own invitation, has invited that intimacy, son, the eponymous Aram.  It was not by accident, you believe, that one of your oldest and dearest friends pressed into your hands a book he assured you would change your life and the way you thought about writing.  The book, Obituaries, previously unknown to you, was a collection of obituaries written by Bill, many of them written because, although he did not know the deceased, thought he might have liked to do so.  Other of these fanciful essays, were of a piece with what he apparently told the on duty bartender at the Elk's Club that night in, you reckon, 1970 or 71.

The friend who loaned you the book was right.  You remember it to this day, at least thirty years after the fact, and yes; it did change your life by allowing you once again to see how Bill was no stranger to opening up new and wonderful inventions and challenges, and yes, it did change the way you thought about writing, in the sense that for you, the antic always trumps the staid convention.

Only today, you discovered a source for securing a copy of Obituaries; only today, you ordered it; only today you discovered from Aram that it is one of his favorite books as well.

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