Is Hemingway’s Writing Advice Legit?

You often hear the advice that writing is basically just sitting down and doing it.  The classy version is “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Someone on Twitter asked me if I thought Hemingway had said it more tersely: “apply seat of pants to chair.” Well, that sounds as if it might be Hemingway. It’s matter-of-fact enough–but I was dubious.  I’ve read a good deal of Hemingway over the years and many Hemingway biographies and never encountered that line or anything like it.

 

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As usual, the Internet isn’t much help. Even though it shows up as my Twitter contact says in a book about Hemingway, it’s also attributed on the Internet to Kingsley Amis, Mark Twain (isn’t everything?), and more frequently to someone I’d never heard of, Mary Heaton Vorse.

According to Wikipedia, Vorse was the author of apparently a dozen books of fiction, and an activist dedicated to “peace and social justice causes, such as women’s suffrage, civil rights, pacifism (specifically including opposition to World War I), socialism, child labor, infant mortality, labor disputes, and affordable housing.”

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But there’s that quote…. Did she actually say it? When you check an authoritative page of Vorse quotes, all of which have attribution details, it doesn’t show up. All the quotations listed there are focused on larger issues; here’s a typical one:

This philosophy of hate, of religious and racial intolerance, with its passionate urge toward war, is loose in the world. It is the enemy of democracy; it is the enemy of all the fruitful and spiritual sides of life. It is our responsibility, as individuals and organizations, to resist this.

Of course, Vorse is listed on Goodreads as the author of those words about the pants and the chair. Good old Goodreads, you can always depend on that site for a bogus attribution when you need one.

So is it Twain, Hemingway, Kingsley Amis, or Honoré Fauteuil, inventor of the chair of that name? (I made him up, actually).

Well, the source is more likely the been famed, caustic humorist Dorothy Parker.  The version she gets credit for is snappy: “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.”

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Whoever said it, though, is ass-application really good advice for writers? Plenty of us writers have spent idle hours with butts stuck to our chairs not getting anything more than sweaty and frustrated.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books, most recently Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and militarized police forces.  His web site is levraphael.com.

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4 Responses

  1. Two characters in one of Wendy Hornsby’s books once agreed that almost any funny/pithy quote could be–and often has been– attributed to Mark Twain or Winston Churchill. To that list I’d add Oscar Wilde.

  2. It’s officially called “Churchillian drift.” Speaking of Wilde and misquotations: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lev-raphael/3-fake-quotes-by-famous-a_b_6147592.html

  3. You could probably tell whether Vorse is the source (sorry) by reading a bit of her fiction. This is why we know Henry James isn’t the author. As for Hemingway, he said a lot of goofy things and seems the likeliest.

    • I doubt reading her fiction would prove much of anything since it might be in any number of voices. Dorothy Parker seems likelier since the short version has the ring of other one-liners of hers like “I require three things in a man: he must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.” and “One more drink and I’ll be under the host.” and “Their pooled emotions wouldn’t fill a teaspoon.”

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