“It Took Me Fifteen Years to Discover That I Had No Talent for Writing.” “Did You Quit?”

Robert Benchley? Mark Twain? Walter Winchell? Groucho Marx? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the funniest quotations about writing is usually credited to the brilliant wit Robert Benchley:

It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.

I was very surprised to find the same joke attributed to Twain in the comprehensive collection “Everyone’s Mark Twain”:

After writing for fifteen years it struck me I had no talent for writing. I couldn’t give it up. By that time I was already famous!

Was this quip created by Robert Benchley, Mark Twain, or somebody else?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this comical remark was crafted by neither Twain nor Benchley. The earliest version of the joke located by QI was about writing poetry. It was published in the humor magazine Puck in February 1912 under the title “COULDN’T AFFORD TO THEN”. The generic names SCRIBBLER and FRIEND were used to designate the speakers in a dialog: 1

SCRIBBLER.—It took me nearly ten years to learn that I couldn’t write poetry.
FRIEND.—Gave it up then, did you?
SCRIBBLER.—Oh, no. By that time I had a reputation.

In March 1912 the same joke was reprinted in other periodicals with an acknowledgement to Puck, e.g., Springfield Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts, 2 Seattle Daily Times of Seattle, Washington, 3 and The Jersey Journal of Jersey City, New Jersey. 4

In September 1912 The Independent, a weekly magazine based in New York City, printed a variant that referred to writing stories instead of poetry: 5

“It took me nearly ten years to learn that I couldn’t write stories.”
“I suppose you gave it up, then?”
“No, no. By that time I had a reputation.”
—New York American.

The quip was retold, and the phrasing evolved for decades, but the creator was left unnamed. The earliest connection to Mark Twain located by QI appeared in the popular newspaper column of Walter Winchell in 1946. The first known attachment of the joke to Benchley occurred in an issue of Reader’s Digest in 1949. Also, Nathaniel Benchley, the son of Robert, attributed the joke to his father in a biography he wrote in 1955. The details are provided further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1920 the quip was printed in a newspaper in Riverside, California and in the humor magazine Life under the title “A Popular Author”. The instance in Life included an acknowledgment to another periodical: 6 7

“It took me nearly ten years to learn that I couldn’t write stories.”
“I suppose you gave it up then?”
“No, no. By that time I had a reputation established and didn’t have to.”
–Kansas Brown Bull.

In 1936 The Literary Digest printed the following version with an acknowledgment. This version was also printed in Boys’ Life magazine in 1938: 8 9

The Way to Fame.—AUTHOR—”Well, sir, upshot of it was that it took me ten years to discover that I had absolutely no talent for writing literature.”
Friend — “You gave up?”
Author — “Oh, no; by that time I was too famous.” — Valdosta Times.

In 1943 the phrase collector Evan Esar included a version of the saying reformulated as a definition for the word “writer” in “Esar’s Comic Dictionary”: 10

writer. 1. By the time a writer discovers he has no talent for literature, he is too successful to give it up.

In 1946 the powerful newspaper columnist Walter Winchell wrote a piece with the title “Little Known Stories About Well-Known People”. He included the first known attribution of the joke to Twain: 11

This is a Mark Twain tale we haven’t come across before…. When Mark was at the height of his career he informed a friend: “It took me ten years to discover that I had no talent for writing.”
“And you gave it up?”
“Oh, no! By that time I was too famous!”

In May 1949 The Saturday Review published a cartoon signed by Jack Markow that depicted three people sitting near a fireplace in a book-lined room with a man in glasses speaking. The caption presented an instance of the joke that was similar to the common modern version. The quip was delivered by one person rather than two: 12

“It took me ten years to discover I had no talent for writing, but by that time I was so famous I couldn’t stop.”

In September 1949 the joke was assigned to Robert Benchley in the “Quotable Quotes” section of Reader’s Digest. This is the earliest known connection to Benchley, and it was listed in the Yale Book of Quotations: 13 14

Robert Benchley: It took me 15 years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.

In 1955 the son of Robert Benchley wrote a biography of the humorist, and the saying was included: 15

He wrote slowly, and with great care, sometimes brooding and gnawing his nails for fifteen minutes before pecking in a comma, and he always had the feeling that what he was writing wasn’t as good as it should have been. As he once said: “It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”

In 1972 the compilation “Everyone’s Mark Twain” included a version of the saying. But the supporting citation was to “The Twainian” newsletter published in 1952, and this was many years after the death of Twain: 16

After writing for fifteen years it struck me I had no talent for writing. I couldn’t give it up. By that time I was already famous!
The Twainian, May-June 1952, p. 4

In 1978 a book based on a series of interviews with Groucho Marx was published by the biographer Charlotte Chandler. Groucho indicated that Benchley told him a variant of the saying: 17

I like what Benchley used to say. He said to me once, “I realized I wasn’t funny, but I’d been doing it for fifteen years, and I was so successful I couldn’t stop.”

In 2001 the top quotation expert Nigel Rees carefully examined this saying in the reference work “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”. He located the 1952 issue of “The Twainian” which contained an attribution to Mark Twain, and the 1955 biography that included an ascription to Robert Benchley. Sharply, he also noted that a version of the quip was already in circulation in the 1920s. 18

In conclusion, QI does not believe there is any substantive evidence that Mark Twain created, spoke, or wrote this joke. Also, versions of the joke were in circulation for many years before it was credited to Robert Benchley; hence, QI does not believe that he created it. Yet, the statements of Nathaniel Benchley and Groucho Marx provide evidence that Benchley probably did use the quip.

Notes:

  1. 1912 February 28, Puck, Volume 71, Couldn’t Afford To Then, Unnumbered Page [Page 5 by count], Column 3, Keppler & Schwarzmann, New York. (HathiTrust)
  2. 1912 March 02, Springfield Republican, Had a Reputation, [Acknowledgement to Puck], Page 17, Column 7, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1912 March 05, Seattle Daily Times, “Couldn’t Afford to Then”, [Acknowledgement to Puck], Page 7, Column 2, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank))
  4. 1912 March 23, Jersey Journal, “Scissorettes: Too Late.”, [Acknowledgement to Puck], Page 16, Column 4, Jersey City, New Jersey (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1912 September 19, The Independent, [Weekly Magazine], Pebbles, [Acknowledgement to New York American], Page 679, Column 2, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1920 June 19, Riverside Daily Press, Flickers: From the Film of Current Events, A Popular Author, Section 2, Page 4 [GNB Page 10], Riverside, California. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1920 June 10, Life, Aut Scissors Aut Nullus: A Popular Author, [Acknowledgement to Kansas Brown Bull.], Page 1094, Column 3, Life Office, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals; Google Books) link
  8. 1936 May 2, The Literary Digest, Volume 121, The Spice of Life, Page 44, Column 3, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Unz)
  9. 1938 September, Boys’ Life, Think and Grin, Edited by Frank Rigney, Quote Page 27, Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (Google Books full view) link
  10. 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Page 310, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1946 January 26, Greensboro Record, Along Broadway New York by Walter Winchell, Little Known Stories About Well-Known People, Page 6, Column 3, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  12. 1949 May 21, The Saturday Review, [Cartoon by Jack Markow], Page 4, Saturday Review Associates Inc., New York. (Unz)
  13. 1949 September, Reader’s Digest, Volume 55, Quotable Quotes, Page 118, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  14. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Robert Benchley, Page 53, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  15. 1955, Robert Benchley: A Biography by Nathaniel Benchley, Page 9, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  16. 1972, Everyone’s Mark Twain, Compiled by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Page 675, A. S. Barnes and Company, South Brunswick and New York. (Verified on paper)
  17. 1978, Hello, I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends by Charlotte Chandler, Quote Page 272, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  18. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Writers and writing, Page 468, [Cassell, London], Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)