You’ll often read or hear the advice that writing is basically just sitting down and doing it, or more elegantly that “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 a version of it: “apply seat of pants to chair.” Well, that sounds as if it might be Hemingway. It’s terse and 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 anything like it. As an author, I wouldn’t forget a line like that.
As usual, the Internet isn’t much help. And 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 you’ve probably never heard of, Mary Heaton Vorse.
According to Wikipedia, Vorse wasn’t just the author of apparently a dozen books of fiction, she was also 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.” Amazing, no?
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. In fact, none of the quotations listed there are about writing. They’re all focused on much 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.
But 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 vague or even 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, it’s far more likely to have been famed and caustic humorist Dorothy Parker. The version she’s credited with is sharper: “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.” For what it’s worth, it appears on almost every site of Parker witticisms and if you’ve read Parker and read about her, it feels right.
Whoever said it, though, it’s only arguably good. Plenty of us writers have spent idle hours with butts stuck to our chairs not getting very far–but that’s the subject for another blog.
Filed under: Lev Raphael | Tagged: Authors, Dorothy Parker, fiction, Goodreads, Hemingway, Kingsley Amis, Mark Twain, Mary Heaton Vorse, motivation, Novels, On Writing, Quotations, Twitter, writing, writing process | 4 Comments »