Don’t Like to Write, But Like Having Written

Dorothy Parker? George R. R. Martin? Frank Norris? Robert Louis Stevenson? Cornelia Otis Skinner? Clive Barnes? Gloria Steinem? Hedley Donovan?

write09Dear Quote Investigator: Writing is an arduous task for many skilled authors. There is a popular family of sayings that contrasts the elation of accomplishment with the struggle of composition:

1) I hate to write, but I love having written.
2) I loathe writing, but I love having written.
3) Don’t like to write, but like having written.
4) I don’t enjoy writing. I enjoy having written.
5) Writers don’t like writing — they like having written.

Fantasy and science fiction author George R. R. Martin whose books are the basis for the celebrated “Game of Thrones” television series apparently employed this saying. Famous wit Dorothy Parker is also sometimes credited with the remark? Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: George R. R. Martin did use an instance of this expression during a 2011 interview, and the details are given further below. However, QI has found no substantive linkage to Dorothy Parker.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a Minnesota journal named “The Bellman” which acknowledged another periodical called “Detroit Saturday Night”. The novelist Frank Norris was recognized for his works “The Octopus: A Story of California” and “The Pit: A Story of Chicago”. In 1915, a decade after his death, a letter written by him was discovered and published. Norris described his work habits as a writer, and the following excerpt contained an instance of the saying under investigation: 1

I write with great difficulty, but have managed somehow to accomplish 40 short stories (all published in fugitive fashion) and five novels within the last three years, and a lot of special unsigned articles. Believe my forte is the novel. Don’t like to write, but like having written. Hate the effort of driving pen from line to line, work only three hours a day, but work every day.

Believe in blunt, crude Anglo-Saxon words. Sometimes spend half an hour trying to get just the right combination of one-half dozen words. Never rewrite stuff; do all hard work at first writing, only revise—very lightly—in typewritten copy.

These words of Norris were widely disseminated by multiple news outlets in 1915 and 1916, e.g., “The Racine Journal News” of Wisconsin, 2 “The Charleroi Mail” of Pennsylvania, 3 and “The Chicago Tribune” of Illinois. 4

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1936 a short piece in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana newspaper titled “I Hate to Write” was published, and it included an instance of the remark ascribed to an unnamed magazine writer: 5

Many persons who have found fame and acclaim at the end of writing a book are very glad when they have finished what they were doing, but they hated the actual hard labor of doing it.

A woman, who was associated with the American Magazine, stopped here for a short while one night and talked of life and literature and things close to the heart of the ardent enthusiast of writing.

Asked if she liked to write, she said: “I don’t like to write, but I love having written.”

In 1946 a collaborative book composed by an author and a teacher about the craft of writing titled “From Fact to Fiction” was published. A commentary section by the teacher, Robeson Bailey, included an instance of the saying attributed to an anonymous professional writer: 6

Don’t expect the writing of stories to be a delightful release from the cares of the world; as a vocation it exists right at the center of those cares and nowhere else. A professional summed up the writer’s agony and his joy when he said: “I hate to write. But I love having written.”

In 1954 columnist Maryland McCormick writing in the pages of “The Washington Post” credited the saying to “Stevenson”. This was perhaps a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson who died in 1894, but QI has found no earlier support for this interesting ascription: 7

…the sight of copy paper waiting to be written upon looks almost impossible. Like Stevenson, “I hate writing, but I love having written.”

In 1964 the author and actress Cornelia Otis Skinner was interviewed by a journalist of the Women’s News Service, and Skinner spoke a variant of the saying: 8

“I like having written a book, but I can’t say I enjoy the actual work,” she admits with a grin. “But I’m enjoying the one I’m doing now. It’s a life of the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt…

In 1968 Clive Barnes was the drama critic for “The New York Times” which made him the most powerful and feared reviewer of Broadway productions. Barnes was a prolific writer, yet he employed a variant of the saying when he was interviewed for a profile article: 9

While Mr. Daniel, The Times managing editor, says that “one of our problems is that he writes far more than we have room to print,” Mr. Barnes says he enjoys writing. “Well, I don’t know if that’s true,” he revises his opinion. “I enjoy having written.”

In 1975 television writer and best-selling novelist Sidney Sheldon was interviewed in the “Los Angeles Times” and he used a variant of the expression: 10

Sidney. I know novelists who love having written. But they experience agony all during the process. Perhaps I’m different because I enjoy it every step of the way. My first draft of Midnight ran to more than 1000 pages. I rewrote it 12 times.

In February 1976 Irene Kampen employed an instance of the saying. Kampen was best known for writing the book that inspired the popular television series “The Lucy Show” which was Lucille Ball’s successor series to another long-running comedy “I Love Lucy”. Kampen ascribed the expression to a “famous writer”: 11

Like many writers, she finds writing hard work. “It is one of the few professions that doesn’t get easier the more you do it. I feel about writing the way a famous writer says he feels, ‘I loathe writing, but I love having written.'”

In November 1976 an article in a Pocatello, Idaho newspaper ascribed a version of the statement to well-known feminist Gloria Steinem: 12

Most writers, as Gloria Steinem has said, don’t like writing; they like having written.

In 1978 the television writer Larry Gelbart who was best known for the series M*A*S*H was interviewed in the “Los Angeles Times”. Gelbart credited the expression to Dorothy Parker who died in 1967, and this was the earliest linkage to Parker found by QI: 13

Q. Do you like writing?

Larry. Dorothy Parker said it best when she was asked the same question: “I enjoy having written.”

In 1979 an Associated Press article printed a remark made by U.S. President Jimmy Carter who told an anecdote about one of his assistants named Hedley Donovan who was the former editor-in-chief of publishing powerhouse “Time”: 14

“Do you really enjoy writing?” Donovan was asked.

“Well, let me put it this way,” the Time man responded. “I enjoy having written.”

In 2011 epic fantasy author George R. R. Martin was interviewed by “Entertainment Weekly”, and he knowingly referenced the expression when responding to a question: 15

Interviewer: Do you find it fun to write?

GRRM: I do. Yeah. To the extent that anything is fun to write. I’m one of those writers who say “I’ve enjoy having written.” There are days I really enjoy writing and there are days I f–king hate it. I can see it in my head and the words won’t come. I try to put it on the page and it feels stiff and wooden and it’s stupid. Writing is hard work.

In 2013 George R. R. Martin was interviewed by the “io9” website, and Martin indicated that the remark about writing was already in circulation: 16

Interviewer: You actually said once you don’t enjoy writing, you enjoy having written.

GRRM: Yeah. Which is not original again with me either. A lot of writers have said that. But writing is hard. I mean I sit there and work at it.

Boy, there are days where I get up and say “Where the hell did my talent go? Look at this crap that I’m producing here. This is terrible. Look, I wrote this yesterday. I hate this, I hate this.”

In conclusion, this family of expressions is difficult to trace because of its mutability. This article represents a snapshot of what QI has found. Based on the 1915 citation QI would provisionally credit Frank Norris with the statement “Don’t like to write, but like having written”. During the almost one hundred years since 1915 many other writers have made similar remarks. Strengthening the emotional valence by changing “like” to “love” is a common modification.

Image Notes: Photo of computer used for writing from Unsplash at Pixabay. Portrait of California novelist Frank Norris from Bancroft Library of University of California, Berkeley. Image has been retouched, cropped, and resized.

Update History: On November 9, 2014 the identity of the series inspired by Irene Kampen’s book was changed to “The Lucy Show” from the incorrect “I Love Lucy”.

(Great thanks to Niklas Hjelm Smith whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Benjamin Dreyer who identified the series inspired by Irene Kampen’s book as “The Lucy Show”.)

Notes:

  1. 1915 December 4, The Bellman, Volume 19, The Bellman’s Book Plate, The Writing Grind, (Acknowledgement to Detroit Saturday Night), Start Page 642, Quote Page 643, Column 1, Published by The Bellman Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1915 December 17, Racine Journal News, How One Novelist Wrote, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Racine, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1916 January 11, Charleroi Mail, How One Novelist Wrote, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Charleroi, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1916 February 13, Chicago Tribune, Tabloid Book Review by Fanny Butcher, Quote Page G4, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  5. 1936 July 11, Morning Advocate (Advocate), ‘I Hate to Write’, Quote Page 4, Column 1 and 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1946, From Fact to Fiction by Edmund Ware (Edmund Ware Smith) and Robeson Bailey, Quote Page 22, Published by D. Appleton-Century Company, New York and London. (Internet Archive Full View)
  7. 1954 October 03, Washington Post, The Distaff Side: Trust Memory? Never! by Maryland McCormick, Quote Page S11, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  8. 1964 October 26, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Cornelia Speaks Out: Loathes Women In Bunches, And Afternoon Receptions by Olga Curtis (Women’s News Service), Quote Page 2-B, Column 4, Lubbock, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  9. 1968 October 16, Wall Street Journal, Man on the Aisle: New York Times Critic Has a Powerful Impact On American Theater But Clive Barnes Fears Day He Will Miss Play’s Point, Start Page 1, Quote Page 15, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 1975 October 26, Los Angeles Times, Home Q&A: Jorja & Sidney Sheldon by Marshall Berges, Start Page R16, Quote Page R19, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  11. 1976 February 24, Press Telegram, No hand at dusting, but her humor is polished by Marie MacDonald (Ridder News Service), Quote Page A-8, Column 4, Long Beach, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  12. 1976 November 19, Idaho State Journal, Pocatellan captures flavor of Stanley Basin’s history by Joan LaLiberte (Journal Staff Writer), Page C-8, Column 3, Pocatello, Idaho. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1978 July 16, Los Angeles Times, Home Q&A: Pat & Larry Gelbart by Marshall Berges (Interviewer), Start Page T26, Quote Page T28, Column 3, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  14. 1979 December 20, The Index-Journal, Carter Discovers New Word by Frank Cormier (Associated Press Writer), Quote Page 16, Column 1, Greenwood, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  15. Website: Entertainment Weekly, Article title: EW interview: George R.R. Martin talks ‘A Dance With Dragons’, Author/Interviewer: James Hibberd, Timestamp on website: July 12, 2011 at 10:44AM, Website description: Entertainment news, (Accessed shelf-life.ew.com on October 18, 2014) link
  16. Website: io9 Observation Deck, Article title: George R.R. Martin: The Complete Unedited Interview, Author/Interviewer: Charlie Jane Anders, Timestamp on website: 7/23/13 5:04pm, Website description: Science fiction and science news, (Accessed observationdeck.io9.com on October 18, 2014) link