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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