(Excerpt from Raking the Dust)
I found a wooden table tucked away in a corner of the room which was directly opposite the Biographies section. I quickly learned that the table had a gimp leg and wobbled when I wrote.
This wobbling will throw off your whole game, I warned myself, and was about to abandon the defective table for a stable one, but hearing the words in my mind—defective, stable—invoked a sense of affection and sympathy for my table.
You are the cripple, the gimp, the invalid; you are the table that has probably been abandoned time and again due to your defect. I will not abandon you, as the others have, for a stable and fully functional table.
I spent about two hours reading and scribbling notes, then I got hungry. Which made me think of Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger. And how the protagonist, in a fit of delirium, viciously bit into his finger, rending flesh to feel alive, to feel human. Which made me think of a starved Chaplin, relishing a boiled-boot supper in The Gold Rush.
The notion that eating one’s finger was the same as eating one’s boot struck me as whimsically obscene. Which made me hungry for words. The right ones.
I went from aisle to aisle, scanning the shelves with quiet intensity. I returned to my gimp table with a half-dozen books. One of them, The Chauvinist, was a collection of stories written by a Japanese-American writer, Toshio Mori, of whom I had never heard. I had picked up the book because the preface had been written by William Saroyan.
I read several of Mori’s stories and could see why Saroyan had been a fan of his work. The casualness and diamond-sharp simplicity of Mori’s style was reminiscent of Saroyan. For Saroyan, no slouch when it came to self-aggrandizement, it must have been like looking into a mirror and seeing a double reflection. Mori’s writing possessed that unpretentious grace and salt-of-the-earth quality that Saroyan so greatly admired and had distilled into his own writing.
When I got to the story “Confessions of an Unknown Writer” (written in 1933) I zipped through it breathlessly, then immediately re-read it again. After a second reading I closed the book and let the story sink in and settle. It had been the same way when I was twenty and read Saroyan’s collection of stories The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze for the first time. Story after story rendered blows to my brain, vigorous love taps inducing shortness of mind-breaths, until I was dizzy and blissfully woozy, lost and found all at once.
I opened the book again, went back to the story “Confessions of an Unknown Writer” and copied its closing passages, those which had almost brought me to tears.
“I am back in my little room writing the end of this piece and thinking about myself, the writer. I am settled back and comfortable. I do not need to hurry. My head is clearer and I am returning consciously to the glare of clean white paper before me. I become sullen and the size of the blank sheet grows bigger.
“I become panicky and then dull. The silence of my room, which is usually very dear to me, begins to irritate me. All I have is myself, I think, and to commune with a clean sheet of paper is the costliest time of my life. I have no place to go, and I have nobody waiting for me. I am a fool. I am a big fool, I think to myself. I am wasting my life on nothing, and like a fool, will continue wasting it forever.
“For something to do, I rush up to the mirror and look at my face. The biggest little sap, the biggest little sap, I keep saying to myself. What have I done in the past and what shall be my future? I look at my face and become sad.
“I think of my mother, and her patience, and her belief in me. This is as sad as the scattered papers, the old magazines, secondhand books, an old typewriter, and the bare yellow walls. I walk up and down the little room until I become exhausted. Dimly I hear the train whistle, and the trains roar by. It is three in the morning, I think to myself. I sit down in the only seat I have in the room before my typewriter and face the challenge of a white paper and life. Only then I realize, I will sit and write even if I should become a fool. I will go on writing for life no matter that may happen a few mad hours or days, that being a fool will not stop one from becoming what nature intended him to be.”
After copying Mori’s words by hand, I felt a warm, protective glow. His words were now inside me, or I inside them, which meant that I was immune to worry or despair, at least for the time being.