About a Man Who Wanted to Be in Love

new 019Saroyan was a product of his times. Going back and looking through early stories, you can see how they reflect many of the social morays of the day, as well as elements of Saroyan’s own journey. Reading “About a Man Who Wanted to Be in Love” raises some difficult questions about both the era and Saroyan’s worldview.

The story begins, simply enough, with a man named Gordon Kirker. He has not been in love for an extended period, and thus he toys with the idea of killing himself. After disposing of that idea as being ‘not all it’s cracked up to be,’ he moves on to find a woman to fall in love with. The vast majority of the story is about Kirker meeting women, and ultimately finding reasons to reject them all.

And, at the end, there’s a twist – he was married with a devoted wife all along.

The issues with this story, as it appears to today’s readers, arise mostly from the modern view of misogyny and racism. At the time of the writing, it might have raised a few eyebrows, but certainly would not have been far outside of the norms of the day, especially among men of Saroyan’s age. The way Kirker treats the woman is troubling as he seems to be interested in finding a woman who is not intelligent, meets his standards for physical beauty, and are available to him. His use of the word ‘girl’ to describe all women would also not fly so well today.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect is the portion of the piece dedicated to Kirker and a Chinese woman he encounters. While including a Chinese character in a story such as this would be rare for a non-Chinese writer at the time, though some California writers had started to open up to including non-White characters, Saroyan makes a couple of troubling statements.

“She might be almost anything but Japanese or Chinese.”

He also discusses her coloration, noting –

“And, to be sure, she as not at all yellow, nor was she tan, but her complexion was like that of a White girl who had been in the sun a lot.”

This sort of view of Asian women, and particularly the attraction to a Chinese woman so long as she appeared to be White, is a problematic view and one that actually plays off of a long-standing concept of ‘Whiteness’ being preferable to any other skin coloration. While the Asian communities of San Francisco received better treatment than in many parts of the country in the 1920s, there was still a bias against them within residents. In many ways, this persisted for decades. 

The entire idea of the search is itself problematic. He seems to treat the women he interacts with well, at least at first, but also appears to consider them as flat objects without emotions or a backstory of their own. At the same time, he quickly develops paranoia surrounding some, or simply leaves them without contact, what today we’d call ‘ghosting’ them. The general feeling of the story, especially after the reveal of his marital status, is that Kirker isn’t actually looking for a partnership, but seemingly for someone to treat him as the center of their world.

“He wanted a girl to worship him, and sophisticated ladies worshipped not even God let alone mere men.”

There is a possibility of this work being specifically a call-out to the reader. The idea of a young man wanting to find love is one of the classic stories, and we’re presented with a somewhat prosaic form of it. We might even be rooting for Kirker, but then we are told that this is a married man, and the way it’s presented seems to indicate that Kirker took on this project while not maintaining his relationship with his wife and family. This is somewhat unclear, but it would have been difficult for him to do so much dating while still living with his wife and kids. Perhaps we are meant to turn on him, see his behavior as unacceptable. This might be a generous reading when you take the general treatment of the women on his search into account, but it could be. Saroyan was never shy about usign unlikable characters and bringing darker aspects of human behavior to light. Here, a reader could debate his intent, and perhaps he was trying to point out how often the audience for these kinds of stories buys into the search for love without truly understanding what the full picture might be, and that certainly in the real world, there are almost always complications. 

These themes, the search for love and the difficulties between men and women, pop up throughout Saroyan’s oeuvre. The search for love is an element of many stories, including The Human Comedy, and the difficulties of finding and maintaining love and relationships is a major element of later works like Boys & Girls Together and many of his later short stories.  Suicide also appears as a theme in several of his stories, notably "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." 

In Saroyan’s personal life, he had difficulties with women dating to his youth. He was married twice, to the same woman, and like Gordon Kirker, he had two children – a boy and a girl. The marriage was not a happy one, and there’s little evidence of him having lasting romantic relationships that were. Of course, all of that would take place in the decades after he published the story.

Covers010Stylistically, this story seems to fit in with Saroyan’s future writing better than "How to Write." Both share some themes, notably  the idea of their story being a story, but in "About A Man Who Wanted to Be in Love" the writing is more conversational, and there are many more of Saroyan’s famed digressions. The voice here is clear, and you can see the elements that would become lauded with the release of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories in 1934. One element that doesn't seem to exist in these early stories is the optimism tinged with melancholy that came to be called 'Saroyanesque' writing. These are more cynical works, but perhaps 

The story first appeared in Boulevardier, a magazine that published several significant writers early in their careers but was largely forgotten, save for the cocktail that bears its name. Saroyan himself seems to have forgotten about the fact that he published there. He would also say that Overland Magazine was his first publication, though this may have been Saroyan wanting to highlight his association with that famed publication instead of the lesser-known Boulevardier. He was certainly aware of the stories, as in 1977 he wrote the Detroit Public Library requesting photocopies of the four stories that appeared in the magazine. On the upper portion of the copy of "About A Man Who Wanted to Be in Love" appears, in Saroyan's clearly recognizable scrawl, "Fresno Friday December 16 1977 1PM. First of four 'stories' published in Boulevardier Detroit."  

The story might be a bit jarring for today’s readers, but it does show the earliest portion of Saroyan rise to literary excellence.

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About A Man Who Wanted to Be in Love

First appeared in Boulevardier, April 1928

 

Boulevardier010A Man, who we will call Gordon Kirker for lack of a better name, upon discovering that he had not been in love since November 23rd, 1922, decided that for this reason his life had become quite too worthless and uneventful to bother with. So what did he try to do but take his life. He did not get very far with the idea, however, as he did not find committing suicide exactly what it was cracked up to be. He did not at all like the idea of blowing his brains about with a bullet as that would be terribly sloppy and he wanted to appear as solemn as possible in his coffin. He could not think of swinging himself by the neck until he was dead for only a heinous murderer was deserving of such punishment and it would not be at all fair for him to be so cruel to himself because he had only been guilty of the crime of not having been in love for a number of years. To be sure, Kirker found this business of committing suicide a bit too violent to satisfy him. That is why he gave up the idea altogether and decided that it might be a lot more fun to fall in love again. (And don’t you think he made a fine decision?)

Ordinarily when a man feels like falling in love he immediately looks about for a charming lady or at least the most charming lady that is available at the time, but it was quite different with Kirker. He went to his dreams and to literature for the lady he would love and he was not long in finding her. One night in a dream he came across this most wonderful lady and she was so delicately soft and beautiful and charming that he had to talk in his sleep. He said “Ah ha,” or it might have been “Oh ho,” but it was one of those two I am quite sure. Yes, when Kirker had finally found the lady he thought would be exactly what he wanted he said, “Ah ha, this is the lady I want. Now I wonder how I shall find her?” That was a fine question for Kirker to think up, but it was a more or less difficult question to start out with. It might have been wiser for him to have said, “Now that I have at last found the lady I want, I will make haste to find her,” or something of that sort, but it must be remembered that Kirker was no ordinary person thinking ordinary thoughts for did he not think he would like to take his life? Of course Kirker was no ordinary person. He was an altogether different kind of man. He had good manners and a very good bank account. That, of course, being the principal difference between Kirker and most other gentlemen, and that is no small difference, by any means.

He realized that his only duty in life now was to find this woman whom he would love as soon as possible, for his life had been empty long enough and he cared for emptiness no longer. After a very long debate with himself as to what method of procedure would be the most satisfactory he finally decided that no method of procedure at all would be the wisest way out of the thing, so that is the method he followed. He decided, however, that he would go into the various shops and stores on Market Street (for Kirker is a San Francisco man) to begin with, and if he could not find the desired lady in any of these places he would even knock about in the laundries and packing houses for it was not a rare thing for a Cinderella to be in these sort of places.

One day we find Kirker in one of Woolworth’s stores, of all places, on Market Street looking at birthday cards and ten cent toothbrushes. He had not come into this place with the intention of finding his love but he had hurried in because it had commenced raining and he had sought shelter. He did, however, make an acquaintance here which later delighted him. As I have said he was looking at birthday cards and he happened to lift one so that he might read the fine print on it and no sooner had he done this than two young girls, who had been carefully taught on how to deal with the professional shoplifter, came rushing at him without so much as a smile on either of their faces. One of the girls seemed to be Spanish for she was of tan complexion and she had dark eyes, but she is not the girl we are going to want to meet, for it was the other girl who struck Kirker as being rather charming. She was not Spanish but she must have been Austrian or perhaps Jewish, but she was not in any event, English, but Kirker was not the sort to bother about such trivialities as nationality and it would not have made a bit of difference to him if she had been even an Armenian, for that is exactly what she proved to be. She was pretty and she had black hair, very black hair, of the kind that made one laugh at blondes, and her eyes were very large and warm and her lips danced when she spoke and when she smiled, which was often enough, one saw teeth of ivory and gums of fire.

Kirker was delighted with her and when she asked if she could be of any assistance to him he said, “Why, yes, of course. I am going to want six or seven dozen of these birthday cards as a friend of mine is going to have a birthday soon.” She had not questioned him regarding the quantity of cards he desired but she had given him seven dozen and when she took his money for them, she smiled, but it was not the smile of a common fifteen-cent-store girl. Kirker thought it was the smile of an angel.

“I should like to speak with you alone sometime,” Kirker said, “if you might. Shall we lunch together?”

“Why, of course, I’d be delighted.” She replied, and so they lunched together and they spoke for a whole hour and then it was time for her to go back to her counter, so Kirker left the place. He could not be hanging around a fifteen-cent-store for too long a period of time. Suppose someone he knew should see him? It would be annoying to him as well as his acquaintance. That is why he hurried out to Market Street.

She was a charming young lady Kirker thought; and he had found her conversation beautiful as well as witty. He felt that he might have fallen madly in love with her had she not been so thoroughly intelligent and sophisticated. She possessed all the qualifications of his dream girl except that she knew a trifle too much. In fact, Kirker was a bit afraid that she actually knew much more than he about most things and it was difficult for him to understand how a slip of a girl working at so humble a position could possess so much understanding.

Somehow or other Kirker could not think of making love to her. She would have laughed at him and his foolish words and he would have felt miserable. No, she would not do at all. She would be a fine friend, but she could never be his sweetheart. Kirker called for her now and then and they often went to places together but not once did he thing of making love to her. He would not, however, think of giving up his search for the beautiful, but necessarily dumb lady of his dreams whom he would love.

One day, he strolled into The Emporium, the store in San Francisco that sells everything but illicit liquor, to see what he might see and what should he see but a lovely girl bending over a counter so that the back of her skirt was pulled high, revealing the best portion of her legs, which were so sweetly curved and shaped that Kirker almost fell in love with the legs alone, and it was only his presence of mind that made him also seek the girl’s face which he found not at all unbecoming. There was no question but that her legs were far more beautiful than her face but Kirker was not too particular and he did not hold that against the young lady. He spoke to her for quite a while and before he left he made a date with her for that very night.

She was a blonde and her name was Pansey and she was not the least bit sophisticated, but was, on the other hand, considerably eager to be loved. Kirker was as willing as she in this respect and the two had as good a time as might be expected. After dinner he had taken her to a show, a moving picture because she had asked for it, and after the show to an ice cream parlor and then he had taken her to her home, but before she had gone in it had been necessary for him to kiss her no less than forty times and with no small amount of ardor and passion. Kirker would have liked to have gone into her rooms with her but she had said it was quite impossible for reasons of her own. At last Kirker through he was again in love and it made him feel happy for the moment.

When he had gone to bed that night he had dreamt of his dream girl again but she was not what she used to be. She was neither Pansey nor the Armenian girl who was sophisticated, but she was a combination of the two and the most noticeable thing about her, this night, was her delightfully delicate legs. But that would not do at all and Kirker awoke almost disgusted. He did not feel that he didn’t love this girl Pansey but he wondered why she would not let him into her rooms. It occurred to him that she might have had a good husband asleep somewhere inside while he had been kissing her out in front of their very door. Then Kirker felt lucky that he had not been show through the head and killed. (This is still the same fellow who wanted to commit suicide at the beginning of this tale.” It happened almost every day. Husbands shot down all kinds of innocent young men for being in love with their wives. Kirker now felt almost positive that the reason Pansey had not wanted him to go into her rooms was because she had had a good husband hid away somewhere inside. That was just like a woman with beautiful legs, anyway! He couldn’t have much to do with her any longer. He would go right on with his search, however, as he was in no mood to quit.

The next time we come across Gordon Kirker again he is on Grant Avenue near Washington which is Chinatown in San Francisco, but he was not looking for the lady of his dreams for she could not possibly be Chinese. She might be almost anything but Japanese or Chinese. Of that he was quite sure. As funny as it may seem it was not long before Kirker completely changed his opinion of Chinese girls for it the shop of Sing Fat, across from St. Mary’s, he beheld a most delicious girl of about nineteen who had almond eyes that sparkled and pretty lips that made one forget such things as color. And, to be sure, she was not yellow, nor was she tan, but her complexion was like that of a white girl’s who has been in the sun a lot. Kirker smiled at her and she was kind enough to smile back so he bought several things of her that he did not need but he was not able to speak with her because she seemed not at all interested in flirting.         

That sweet Chinese girl had certainly done right to ignore Kirker for he would have found in a most annoying position had she spoken and flirted with him, for her words were like honey and her manner was unusual and unless one was a Methodist or a celibate one found that one became madly in list with her only to look at her for a few minutes. Kirker, for example, would have been madly  in love with her had he not hurriedly taken the things he had purchased and left the store. Yes, of course, he would have been madly in love with her and he might even have gone so far as to laugh at the traditions of the white man and loved her, but of that one cannot be positive for the Chinese girl had already laughed at those traditions by refusing the white man altogether.

If Kirker had not been lucky enough to find the lady he would love he had at least had a lot of fun looking for her and his life did not any longer seem empty to him and he seemed to be almost as happy as those fortunate men who have steady jobs and a certain amount of bills to pay each month. Kirker remained determined, however, and he insisted that it would be possible for him to find a lady he could love so he continued his search.

That is why we find him next in the very first row at the Warfield Theatre smiling now at this chorus girl and now at that. A few of the girls smiled back and that made Kirker very happy and when they finished dancing he applauded thunderously so that they might not think he was not for them. After the show Kirker went back-stage and had no difficulty finding the girls as they were expecting him and were only too pleased to meet him. He took two of them, Margo and Irene, to lunch and he let them know that he money to spend so the girls ate as much as they could stand and then Kirker took them out walking. Window shopping, they called it, but it didn’t take Kirker long to see that they were not window shopping at all but were actually buying things. He bought Margo some sort of a necklace which she said she had always wanted ever since she was a kid, and for this very same reason he bought Irene a bracelet and then it was time for the girls to get back to their dressing rooms so Kirker took them back in a taxi. While they were in the taxi the girls called him nice things suck as “Daddy” and “Sweet Boy” and they were not afraid of being kissed so that is what Kirker did until they reached the theatre. Both the girls were very proud of Kirker and made him promise that he would be in to see them again very soon, and it was with great joy and vanity that they showed their prizes to the other girls. Kirker, on the other hand, had had quite a jolly time Margo and Irene and really liked both the girls, for they were young and fair, but he knew that they would not do for the lady of his dreams, so he took them to dinner once again and they had a fine time and then the two girls had left the city for Sacramento.

It finally dawned upon Kirker that he had failed to find the lady of his dreams, the one what he would really love, and he was discouraged, but he never thought of committing suicide for he was having too good a time to think about that sort of thing. (And besides he knew suicide was not at all what it was cracked up to be.)

This time it was difficult for Kirker himself to understand just what he wanted in a woman and he felt that he could not explain even to himself exactly what he wanted, but he remained positive that the minute he should see the lady he desired he would know it. It was hardly a question of nationality or color or education or position. What he wanted above all other things was charm and combined with softness and childish sincerity as well as a sweet manner and an unsophisticated view of life. Kirker feared sophistication in women. He knew that that sweet Armenian would have been ideal had she not been so capably sophisticated. He wanted a girl to worship him, and sophisticated ladies worshipped not even God let alone mere men.

Boulevardier011For six long months Kirker continued his search still insisting that he would find the lady who would make him fall madly in love with her. He met this girl, and that, nd talked with then and danced with them and kissed many of them and bought things for most of them, but not once did he fall in love. He was having a pleasant time, he supposed, but what he wanted was love and he had searched but he had not found and he felt sad. He had tried the shop girl, the chorus girl, the stenographer, and a lot of others but not one of them had been the lady of his dreams. He liked them all, but he loved not one of them.

At last, he gave up. The more he went about with these various girls the more fault he found with them and the more beautiful the girl became the girl of his dreams. So at last he decided that he would neither commit suicide nor would he try to fall in love again for both these things were not what they were cracked up to be.

After all this fooling around Kirker sadly went back to his wife, for Kirker had a wife who loved him like she loved no other man, and he had, as well, a daughter named Helen and a son named William.

(Now, isn’t that just like a man?)

The Acting Company and The Time of Your Life

For more than five decades, Julliard’s Drama division has been recognized as one of the premiere acting schools in the world. Founded in 1968, it was originally led by the legendary director, producer and actor John Houseman. Famed for his collaborations with the likes of Orson Welles, Houseman was known for his demanding attitude and clear vision. He also had an incredible eye for talent. His work in the 1930s and 40s left a major impact on the world of theatre, and his work also touched on that of William Saroyan; he presented the first production of Hello Out There in 1941.

The first cohort of actors graduated from the program, called Group 1, included some fine actors who had been honed through Houseman’s demanding methods. The rigors of Julliard’s drama program were felt by the actors.

 “They really worked us, 12, 13 hours a day, class, rehearsals, shows. Only 14 graduated. Some dropped out, some were eliminated, there were a few nervous breakdowns and a couple of attempted suicides,” noted Patti LuPone in an interview in 1975.

logo lightHouseman realized that after graduation, many of the fine actors he had helped to guide through the program would need assistance in acclimating to the professional theatre world. Along with Margot Harley, Houseman founded The Group 1 Acting Company, later called the City Center Acting Company, and later simply The Acting Company. Initially consisting of the first group of Julliard graduating actors, the company began touring almost immediately. Houseman recognized that touring is where many actors hone their skills, and that as a long-time draw, companies full of young actors rarely pull in regular crowds in New York alone. These were little-known actors in search of their fame, after all, and not the kind who sell many tickets.

 In 1976, The Acting Company produced The Time of Your Life.

Houseman and Saroyan corresponded over the years, but Houseman appears to have not produced another piece of Saroyan’s in the intervening years. The choice of The Time of Your Life must have been an easy one; it had been a popular piece with actors since it was first performed in 1939.  The combination of melancholic optimism and the intricacy of the dialogue make it a showy piece, even if some of the comedy is very much of its time. The combination of moods and tones allow for exploration not only of character, but of concept. Saroyan often pointed out that The Time of Your Life wasn’t about one thing, but about the intersection of nearly everything, and for an actor, that gives them a range to play with.

The Acting Company began touring the show in 1975, taking it to both professional and university theatres around the country along with the musical The Robber Bridegroom. The plays were directed by Jack O’Brien, and received very good notices from many local critics, though some pointed out that cast may have been far fresher than the material, and others that the actors all seemed too inexperienced for the roles they inhabited. These were fairly young actors whose technique was informed by the most modern methods, and at this point, the play was more than 35 years old. Touring around the country, the troop gained an impressive amount of experience, and in 1976, WNET, New York’s biggest public broadcasting channel, produced The Time of Your Life as an episode of Theater in America. This is currently available on DVD and is an amazing record not only of the play, but of the members of the Acting Company in general.

Joe, a well-heeled benefactor of many of those whose paths cross his at Nick’s Pacific Avenue Saloon, is played with a strong sense of joy and pathos by Nicolas Surovy. He took the role and gave a performance that moves fluidly between tones and moods. That’s a difficult matter for some actors, because it can come off as uneven, but Surovy uses that flow as a storytelling technique. Surovy would go on to a long career in film and television.

image w1280Kitty Duvall is a role that many actresses have tackled with varying approaches. Julie Haydon played her shining against the darkness of her situation. In the Playhouse 90 version of the play, Betsy Palmer played her with more anger and overall with more caustic distrust. Here, Patti LuPone plays Kitty with an incredible amount of weight on her shoulders. She infuses a sense of dread at times, and at other points, she seems as if she’s dissociated from her surroundings. It’s a beautiful performance, heart-breaking at times, and just one of many she’s had over a fifty year career. She won Tony awards for her work in Evita, Gypsy, and Company, and has appeared in dozens of films and television programs.

 Tom, Joe’s lackey, is a fascinating character who can be played several ways with equal support from the text. Many play him as a put-upon schlub who is under Joe’s thumb because he saved his life. Dick York chose that route in the Playhouse 90 version and is sometimes cited as being the original intent of the role. Here, Norman Snow, Jr. gives him a sense of duty and hopefulness that certainly represents Saroyan’s most enduring theme. His interactions with Tom are impressive, with both of them feeling as if they’re fulfilling some unspoken contract. Well, mostly unspoken. Snow’s performance was well-regarded, and he would go on to have many roles on television and film, notably 1984’s The Last Starfighter. He passed away in 2022.

One of the most important roles in setting the tone of the play is Nick, the owner of the saloon. He is both affable and gruff, and represents Saroyan’s fondness for those whose contributions are often over-looked. The role has attracted some excellent performances from actors like William Bendix, Jack Klugman, and Dennis Farina. Benjamin Hendrickson gives as strong a performance as you’ll ever see, and one that helps establish the timing of the play. He plays a pivotal role, and one which helps make the comedy feel more solid. Hendrickson continued acting until his death in 2006, notably on the soap opera As the World Turns.

McCarthy, the longshoreman who is also a philosopher and exceptionally well-read, may be the kind of character Saroyan is best remembered for. He presents heady concepts in a clear and passionate way, and those around him recognize his intelligence and admire him for it. They also wonder how he ended up as a longshoreman and not a professor. This kind of role can be tricky, and Saroyan is clearly making a point about the separation of profession and intelligence. In many ways, the role of McCarthy is similar to that of Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting. McCarthy was played by Kevin Kline. Kline became one of Hollywood’s most respected actors in the 1980s, including winning an Academy Award. He’s also kept working on stage, winning three Tony Awards. His television work includes an eleven year stint on the animated series Bob’s Burgers

51TGK1SXPGL. AC UF8941000 QL80 If there is a heavy in The Time of Your Life, it is the heel, Blick. He’s the head of the San Francisco vice squad and is particularly down on the sex workers who inhabit that part of town. He frequents Nick’s saloon, which Nick is not happy about. The end of the play is brought about by his cruel treatment of Kitty, forcing her to perform a striptease on the small stage. In the 1976 production, this scene is exceptionally heavy, almost oppressively so for a television segment. No previously recorded version of the work had the sort of intensity that The Acting Company put into the scene. Actor J. W. Harper infuses the role with malevolence. His performance is menacing, and the contrast between Blick and Tom and their treatment of Kitty is a key element to establishing the role of institutions and individuals in how we view not only sex workers, but anyone from a non-privileged class. 

Perhaps the most interesting performance, and one of Saroyan’s overall most memorable characters, is Kit Carson, played here by David Schramm. The role of the old codger who fills every available space with his rambling stories of questionable veracity, is a classic, and Schramm approached it by bringing both comical joy and a certain sense of longing for a more impressive past. Schramm’s career included a long tenure on the television program Wings, as well as continuing to act on stage until his death in 2020.

The smaller roles in the play had many impressive actors as well. Richard Ooms played The Arab, whose mantra-like statement, ‘No foundation all the way down the line,’ is the most memorable line from the play. Ooms’ career has been mostly in film, though with occasional forays into theatre.  Glynis Bell, who played Lorene, has largely remained in theatre. On the other hand, Brooks Baldwin, who played the role of the dancer and comedian Harry (first performed by Gene Kelly) has acted from time to time, but is far better known as a dialect coach for film and theatre.

00f53 The Time Of Your Life Playbill 10 75One other notable performance is that of the author himself. William Saroyan read the prologue. The prologue is read as voice-over - the only image we get of Saroyan himself is from a brief shot of a 1940s headshot hung on a bar post. The photo, of Saroyan in the fedora that was his trademark in the days before he grew his legendary mustache, is one of the most famous of all images of Saroyan.

While not all reviews of the program were positive, most noted the quality of the acting and direction. While there have been several staged revivals of The Time of Your Life, particularly in the years following Saroyan’s death in 1981, there have been no television productions since the Theatre in America version. In fact, other than two recordings of university productions on YouTube, there appear to be no more recent filmed versions of the play at all.

Saroyan’s First Published Story- How to Write

William Saroyan would never be accused of being over-cautious. His early writing, while showing signs of the genius he would display years later, was full of a bravado that would normally be displayed by a much more seasoned writer.

sanfranciscan1928sanf Page 1Saroyan’s first known published piece, How to Write, appeared in The San Franciscan in February, 1928. While Saroyan had been writing for years already, despite being only 19 years old, the first piece published opened with a line that almost feels like a challenge to the popular writers of the day –

“First off, you must have a bad idea – something trite, like a man falling in love with a chorus girl.”

That story has been told many times, and even by 1928 was old hat. You can see variations on that same concept all the way up through recent days, with the film, and its Broadway adaption, Moulin Rouge, being an excellent example.

Even at the beginning of his career, Saroyan is making challenges to the established literary world, though with the limited reach (and apparently budget; Saroyan claims he was never paid) of The San Franciscan, it’s doubtful many of those he was referencing were even slightly aware of the roasting he provided.

The piece itself is humorous and shows much of the wit that Saroyan would become known for, and if it had been published in the 1980s or 90s, it would have been referred to as Post-Modernist. It reflects on the nature of what he considers a hackneyed story and how a writer formulates it. He is telling the story to the reader in a form that violates the classic ‘show, don’t tell’ advice that has been bandied about by editors and writing professors for decades.

Editors and writing professors like Henry S. Canby.

Saroyan gives the piece a sub-title – “With Apology to Henry S. Canby, Department of English, Yale.”

Pasted 20240227 084558 clipped rev 1Saroyan clearly picked up a copy of Canby’s Better Writing, vol. 10, published in 1926. Canby’s writing advice would be used for decades afterwards, and Canby himself would be an important part of Saroyan’s publishing history. Canby edited The Saturday Review of Literature until 1936, and published reviews of Saroyan’s work, including an early praising review of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. The editor of the magazine even includes a paragraph from Canby's book to enlighten the reader as to what Saroyan is nodding at. Most writers would have known, and it's quite possible that's who Saroyan was writing for. 

The story that Saroyan describes, in essence telling it himself, does feel a bit simple, trite, but at the same time, he’s telling it with a wry wink and a smile. He knows exactly what he’s doing with the story. He’s telling a trite story and making us think he’s commenting on exactly what a trite story it is. He transcends that through writing that is humorous and self-reflexive, and audiences of the time likely would not have been as familiar with this technique as audiences of the last 50 years have become.

Like much of Saroyan’s writing, there is a certain celebration of characters that might have been seen as less-desirable in the community. The chorus girl can be seen as fairly sexually liberated, which would not have been a complete shock to readers in the 1920s, but certainly would have stood out. Saroyan often employed characters who were gamblers, grifters, sex workers, or simply those without fixed occupation, and here he is using the chorus girl, who he names Maisie, in much the same way he uses characters like Kitty DuVall in The Time of Your Life. In one of the funnier pieces of writing from the piece, Saroyan says, “Maisie's moral nature may be revealed by stating that she had been loved twice; once by the Army; once by the Navy.”

The male lead who falls in love with her is called John Brown, a name that will not elicit much attention on its own. Compared to Maisie, who Saroyan gives us a strong view of, we get so little about John Brown. This is something that has often been spoken of in many works, how fascinating women are given complex and colorful backstories, while male characters in those some stories are often left unadorned. The story Breakfast at Tiffany’s is at time accused of this problem.

Of course, Saroyan’s best moments are when he specifically pokes the bear, in this case the concepts that there is a formula for good writing.

“So far so good. You have disposed of this much with neatness and dispatch. What to do with Maisie and John? That will be the meat of your story. Now, as anybody knows, who has ever read about writing short stories, all that has to be done is to get these characters to do and say things. Their actions and conversation must tell the story. What they do and say must explain itself to the reader and its part in the tale and its plot sans trimmings, embellishments and explanations by the writer.”

But that is all this ‘story’ is. It is a series of explanations, embellishments on an idea, and one that is funny and eye-opening. Saroyan’s first appearance in a magazine makes for fun reading, and even decades after his death, it’s still saying many of the things that Saroyan professed. It is about the fact that there may be rules, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to follow them.

 

HOW TO WRITE

by William Saroyan

As first appeared in The San Franciscan, March 1928

 

FIRST you must have a bad idea – something trite, such as a man falling in love with a chorus girl. Next, of course, these two people must be given names. The matter of names is simple, almost anything will do. So the man may be disposed of as John Brown and suitable comment made upon him such as "He was one of those men who believed that even if you couldn't fool some of the people some of the time, you could certainly fool yourself all of the time."

Next the girl, although her mere identification as a chorus girl is something of a name in itself. But then she does have to have a name and in a sudden burst of inspiration you christen her Maisie, adding that it is none of the reader's business what her last name happens to be. Maisie's moral nature may be revealed by stating that she had been loved twice; once by the Army; once by the Navy. (This, of course, will make the reader laugh, or at least, smile, as it will indicate that the chorus girl isn't much when it comes to several of the more important commandments.)

If you like and you find you have the space, you can jot down a few lines about Maisie's girl and boy friends. Tell where she was born, but not why. Have her pass a few remarks so that her English will remain in history as one of the various kinds of American being spoken by the flaming youth of her time. And you might add, should you care to, that as far as love is concerned Maisie has ideas of her own without ever having read Madame Glynn

* * * * * *

NOW you are well started. Your foundations are in. Here is a man, John Brown or Hopkins by name, who is among other things a bookkeeper and an ignoramus; and here, on the other hand, or more correctly in the first row, second from the left end is Maisie, who among other things is a chorus girl. Now every male reader above the age of eleven has at some time or other fallen in love with a chorus girl, or with a whole front row of chorus girls. To read about some poor, deluded victim who is in exactly the same dilemma as he was once at one time, pleases him immensely. From the vantage point of his superior sophistication, he will anticipate in high glee the spectacle of John Brown making a damned ass of himself.

So far so good. You have disposed of this much with neatness and dispatch. What to do with Maisie and John? That will be the meat of your story. Now as anybody: knows, who has ever read about writing short stories, all that has to be done is to get these characters to do and say things. Their actions and conversation must tell the story. What they do and say must explain itself to the reader and its part in the tale and its plot sans trimmings, embellishments and explanations by the writer. Ah yes, but it seems to you that in most stories the writer himself says considerable that his characters have nothing to do with. Is there any reason why you can't do the same? Apparently there isn't and you proceed to do just that, writing a little of something about very thing.

Several paragraphs may be accounted for in this fashion. Splendid! You are getting on fine; you warm up. You haven't as yet brought in any action, but at the same time your plot shows symptoms of beginning to unfold itself. Now there ought to be some psychology in the story at this point. Nice sounding word, psychology, an erudite acquisition to one’s vocabulary about the second year in high school, and it is a word and idea that goes over big with readers who likewise achieved the second year in high school, or who go in for that sort of thing.

So you have a feeling that the best part of your tale, or at least one of its best parts, is when you mention that John Brown, the bookkeeper, has to see the show twice to fully convince himself that it is Maisie he is in love with, rather than the redheaded, adorable young thing next to her. Aha, that's psychology for your reader—pure, simple, unadulterated. There will be readers who will stop reading when they come to that and look around to see if anybody is watching them. At this point, you have to have something to bring them back. Some remark, conveying the idea that this fellow Brown is a poor sort, or—shall we say of questionable intentions? That never fails to hold wandering readers. They will go on in spite of themselves and spectators to see what happens to Brown.

AFTER the second show John has to do something to attract the little chorus girl's attention, so what does he do but sneak up on her as she leaves the stage entrance and ask her out to lunch or something of that kind. This is really about the best way to have the would be suitor attract the attention of his admired lady of the chorus. Thus this method is recommended in preference to any other. It is safe.

The chorus girl, Maisie, of course, is or isn't overcome with joy; or she immediately does or doesn't fall madly in love, according to what you intend to take place or what effect you intend the story to have. It is bound to have some kind of an effect one way or the other, whether you intend it to or not.

If you are a good Baptist, or even if you are a down-right bad one, you will have Maisie identify herself as a lady—emphasis on the lady, and with suitable remarks she will send John Brown hack to his little mother, who lives in a small cottage (the cottage must always be small) somewhere or other. Don't try to describe the cottage small, or tell a long story about John's mother, because the story happens to be about her son, such as he is.

On the other hand, if you are not a good or bad Baptist, you will go right ahead allowing your imagination free reign. This is a free country for people who have imaginations, provided their imaginations don't run out of all the bounds properly prescribed for this quality of the mind, so I warn you to be careful. You are liable not to say the right thing at the right time, and alas your story is shattered.

But by and large, about this time you will find that events have progressed beautifully; that spectacular sins are being committed right and left, and you are saying this clever thing and that in almost every paragraph.

* * * * * *

WHEN you find you have enough pieces of paper covered with typewriting, you quickly bring their story to a close by saying whatever happens to come into your mind at the moment. You can send the tale to any magazine you like and if you enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope with your script the editor of the publication so honored will mail it back to you promptly.

The writing of stories, as you can readily see is simple, remarkably simple. One thing is indispensable—that is a typewriter and by way of second thought, the ability to operate it. Wherefore, what better suggestion —why not dash right out and buy a typewriter? Why not?

 

Read a PDF of the original story from The San Franciscan magazine

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