- Historic Sites
Or, How to Write a Smash Hit the First Time You Try
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
On a certain day in December, 1913, I went up to the ornate courthouse of the Appellate Division, on Madison Square, to join a numerous company of youths who, like myself, had survived the bar examinations and the scrutiny of the Character Committee of the Bar Association, and were now being admitted to the practice of law in the state of New York. Aged twenty-one, I had been employed for more than five years in a large law office. In the course of my employment I had worked my way through night law school, advanced by stages from file clerk to managing clerk, and had had my weekly wage increased, with all deliberate speed, from five dollars to fifteen.
I should have been elated by my attainment of the goal toward which I had been travelling for so long, but I was not. On the contrary, I was dismally depressed. I had grown to hate the law, and the prospect of devoting the rest of my life to its practice was a gloomy one indeed. For I wanted to be a writer, and I foresaw that once I embarked seriously upon a legal career, I would become more and more involved and, finally, would find myself inextricably hooked. If I were to escape at all, the time to quit was now.
That is precisely what I did. Early in January, 1914, a few weeks after I was sworn in, I informed my employers that I was giving up my job. They were astounded, as well they might have been. From any common-sense point of view, my precipitate resignation was an act of folly. My future in the office was assured. By the exercise of reasonable diligence I was certain to progress and, in due course, to become a member of the firm. Yet here I was throwing away security and abandoning a steady professional career to devote myself to the most precarious of all activities.
My family too received the news with amazement and, I am sure, with consternation. We were far from destitute, but it was not easy to make ends meet. My father, a chronic invalid, could earn little. The chief source of income was the board paid by my grandfather and my uncle, who lived with us. Out of my fifteen dollars per week, I contributed nine to the family budget. It was tacitly understood that as my economic status improved, I would take over an increasingly larger share of the financial burden. My impulsive action and, even more, my determination to become a writer were incomprehensible to my elders. They had no conception of the literary life—in fact, no acquaintance whatever with the arts. But they were decent people and they were fond of me. They never reproached or questioned me: a forbearance that did much to ease my path.
But having made my decisive move, I began to question it myself. I had a passionate desire to be a writer, preferably a playwright, but very little except hope to go on with. My literary experience had been, to put it mildly, limited. I had sold an O. Henryish short story to Argosy Magazine for twenty dollars; and a play, written in collaboration with an officemate, had won honorable mention (no cash) in a contest conducted by a ladies’ theatre club. The outlook was not only not promising; it was almost nonexistent.
Conscious of my obligations to my family, I set about seeking a stopgap job to keep me going while my literary career was developing. I took two examinations: one to qualify as a teacher of English to foreigners in the city’s night schools; the other a competitive New York State examination for proofreader. I had no equipment for either post. I had never gone beyond the second year of high school; and my proofreading experience consisted of holding copy when briefs were read for correction. While I was awaiting the results of the examinations I continued to pay my nine dollars weekly out of some money I had accumulated in a savings bank. There was enough to last for six months or so; beyond that I did not look.
Since I was determined to be a writer, my immediate problem was to find something to write about. I threshed about for days and weeks, waiting for lightning to strike; but it failed to do so. Then one day I read a magazine article by the dramatic critic and lecturer Clayton Hamilton that captured my interest. Hamilton suggested the possibility of writing a play “backward,” that is to say, a play in which each successive act antedates the preceding one. I found it an attractive notion and began exploring it. But it did not take me long to discover that Hamilton’s ingenious idea was not practicable. A veteran theatregoer—I had begun at the age of eight—and an assiduous student of dramatic literature, I knew that any effective play must deal with the resolution of a situation, and must therefore move forward and not backward. But I saw too that if the story were set in a framework, the interior action could be inverted, so that the play seemingly moved backward.