… I got sore at myself for being smart again. I wasn’t saying what I wanted to say the way I wanted to say it, and I got sore.

Writing exercises with William Saroyan

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark advises you to read your favorite authors and examine their use of writing strategies. I decided to do this by reading Saroyan’s beautiful and irreverent short stories. “Irreverent” they are called by Britannica in this passage:

William Saroyan, (born Aug. 31, 1908, Fresno, Calif., U.S. — died May 18, 1981, Fresno), U.S. writer who made his initial impact during the Depression with a deluge of brash, original, and irreverent stories celebrating the joy of living in spite of poverty, hunger, and insecurity.

I love how the “r” roars in “irreverent”. His stories, his laughter, his melancholy and love of life roar, like this “r”.

Back to the exercises. Below you will see my adapted versions of Clark’s writing tools and the best samples from Saroyan, particularly, the stories The Mother, The Living and The Dead and the novel One Day in the Afternoon of the World. In the end, I have added a strategy that I found fascinating in Saroyan (it wasn’t on Clark’s list).

#1: Seek Original Images: Re-read some passages from your favorite writer. Circle the most original and vivid images.

The Living and the Dead, p 29

Anybody can be awake, but it takes a lot of quiet oriental wisdom to be able to lay your weary body in the light of the sun and remember the beginning of the earth.

The Living and the Dead, p 38

When Melik laughed, said my grandmother, it was like an ocean of clear water leaping at the moon with delight.

#2: Ironic Juxtapositions: Re-read some passages from your favorite writer. Begin to recognize and make a mental note of such examples.

The Living and the Dead, p 29

Pete isn’t a bad guy and in his own way he can write a simple sentence that sometimes means what he wants it to mean … He is excited, but that’s because he is trying hard to say something that will straighten out everything and make everybody get up tomorrow morning with a clean heart and a face all furrowed with smiles.

The Living and the Dead, p 35

I will bring you a bright shawl from Stamboul, he said. I will bring you a bracelet and a necklace. He was drunk of course, but he was my husband. I bore him seven children before he was killed.

#3: Parallel Lines: Begin to notice parallel language in novels, in creative nonfiction, in journalism.

One Day in the Afternoon of the World, p 3

The Fifty-sixth Street steps were the same, the swinging doord were the same, the hall was the same, around the corner the desk was the same, and behind the desk Valensia was almost the same.

#4: Foreshadow: Do you ever violate the principle of Chekov’s Gun? Do you place elements high in your story that never come into play again? Begin to look for the technique of foreshadowing in movies, fiction and dramatic literature.

One Day in the Afternoon of the World, p 4

He was still smiling, at any rate, his clean face still narrow, his hair still black, his eyes still bright and laughing.

#5: Internal Cliffhangers: As you read novels or nonfiction books, begin to notice what the author places at the ends of chapters. How do these elements drive you to turn the page?

One Day in the Afternoon of the World, p 5

Safe at home again, he thought. Now let me see — where do I start?

#6: Back Off or Show Off: When the news or topic is most serious, understate. When the topic is least serious, exaggerate. Read works of your favorite writers. Look for examples of both hyperbole and understatement.

The Mother, p 26

… and one day in March, while he was out on Market Street during his launch hour, he bumped into her, his heart leaping a mile igh because he had been thinking about her so much, and she was very neat, wroking again, and when he saw her he saw how it had ended and he felt sore as they make them because he could tell from the way she looked, even after it was all over, that she had wanted that baby more than anything else in the world, and was herself partly dead because the baby was, too.

The Living and the Dead, p 5

Well, that isn’t so bad, I said. A man can always get by without free speech. There isn’t much to say anyway.

Confidentially, said Pete. I’ve been sent out by the local chapter of the Party to get a dollar from you.
Oh, I said. I thought you were really upset about the poor.

#7: Write Endings to Lock the Box: Begin reading stories, listening to music, and watching movies with endings in mind. Pay close attention to details or themes that are planted early in the work to bear fruit at the end.

The Living and the Dead, p 51

What good will it do when everybody has bread, comrades, what good will it do when everybody has cake, comrades, what good will it do when everybody has everything, comrades, everything isn’t enough, comrades, and the living aren’t alive, brothers, the living are dead, brothers, even the living are not alive, brothers, and you can’t ever do anything about that.

And the bonus strategy: Telling without actually telling anything.

“How about Carlo?”
“He quit a long time ago. This place ain’t the same any more. Go ahead. I’ll bring in the bags.”

“Remember Enesco?” Bert said.
“Yes, I do.”
“You know, when he left here and went home to Europe and we heard he’d died, all the boys got drunk. We used to get a lot of people like Enesco in here, but not any more. I’ll go take care of everything.”


When excited and writing about something literally burning my heart, I use all these strategies and maybe some more. So, the conclusion is: write only when something is burning your heart?

When speaking about something, even if it does not burn my heart, my speech makes use of these strategies and other rhetoric. The color comes chiefly from irony and humor. What makes irony and humor go away when writing? The change of the way I feel and conduct myself in the world from speaking to writing.

When speaking I am free, I have permision to be myself. When wring, and this comes from years of corporate writing, I cannot be who I am. So, humor is equal to being free? Why I can’t be free when writing, even outside corporate boundaries? Custom? Yes. But there is something more, it’s in giving myself permission. Permission to be alive and the way I am at this moment. Permission to appear mad, irrelevant, sad, stupid, funny. To commit errors, “some noble, some half-glorious, some half-godly, but most of them vicious and weak and sorrowful”, in Saroyan’s words. Well, next time I am going to give myself that permission, I am actually doing exactly that at this moment. Even if I don’t, I will still commit those errors, no? Then I might as well enjoy that.

Opposing possible error with possible laughter.

That’s all. I am going to do the same experiment with my other idol, Chekov, in a few days. And that’s going to be in Russian.

Dear Reader, whoever you are, looking at these lines, I thank you. Because if you read this, then I am talking to you wherever you are. I hope you will talk to me, too, leaving a comment. In that way, it will not feel so lonely — me writing and you reading — we will strike a dialogue.

And, I do not ask you to recommend this by pressing the green heart-shaped icon below. That might help other people find this piece but this is only meant for me (not to forget these wonderful words) and you, who found it accidentally.