The First Draft of Anything Is Shit

Ernest Hemingway? Arnold Samuelson? Bernard Malamud? Apocryphal?
hemingway10Dear Quote Investigator: The prose style of the famous author Ernest Hemingway was spare and direct, but to achieve that form he often worked through multiple drafts. A pungent remark about rewriting has been attributed to the Nobel Prize winner. Here are three versions:

The first draft of everything is shit.
The first draft of anything is shit.
The first draft of anything is rubbish.

What do you think? Authentic? Apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: Ernest Hemingway died in 1961, and the first published evidence of this remark known to QI appeared in the 1984 posthumous memoir “With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba” by Arnold Samuelson. In 1934 the nineteen-year-old Samuelson journeyed to Key West, Florida to meet Hemingway whose works had deeply impressed the young man. Hemingway needed a deck hand for his fishing boat, The Pilar, and Samuelson desired a literary tutor and guide. He accepted the job and worked with Hemingway for 10 months.

Samuelson created a manuscript that recorded his experiences, but it was not published during his lifetime. When he died in 1981 his sister found the document and edited it for publication which occurred in 1984. The following advice was given by Hemingway to the aspiring writer. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.

Apparently, this was written while the guidance was still fresh in the mind of Samuelson. The accuracy depends on the correctness and probity of Samuelson and his sister.

The key citation above was identified by top researcher Barry Popik, and his discussion of this topic is available here.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1985 “Esquire” magazine published an article titled “Where’s Papa?: Awash in a Sea of Hemingway Bios” which discussed several works about the prominent literary figure including Samuelson’s. The piquant remark about first drafts was further disseminated when an extended excerpt from “With Hemingway” was reprinted. The excerpt began with the following text; the ellipses were in “Esquire”: 2

Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing … I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times….The first draft of anything is shit.

In 1989 “Words of Wisdom: More Good Advice” compiled and edited by William Safire and Leonard Safir was released. The words ascribed to Hemingway were included in a section about “Literary Composition”. The text matched that given above from “Esquire”. 3

Other notable writers have concurred with the belief that one’s first draft was typically flawed and underdeveloped. In 1997 a collection titled “Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work” was published, and it included a commencement address given by Malamud at Bennington College in 1981 with the following remarks: 4

After first drafts one may revise endlessly. There is more than one way to revise. Some things come to you serendipitously; other demand hard rethinking. Revision is the constant creation of afterthoughts. One learns the best way to milk his mind. The first draft of anything is suspect unless one is a genius.

In conclusion, it is plausible that Arnold Samuelson wrote down the words of instruction he heard from Ernest Hemingway with accuracy; perhaps he did so shortly after he heard them. On the other hand, the long delay from 1934 to 1984 does not inspire a high degree of confidence.

Image Notes: Photo of Ernest Hemingway by Lloyd Arnold circa 1939. Photo of Hemingway and family members with four large marlins from the Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. These photos are in the public domain; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Chris Owen and Francis Ingham whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also thanks to Barry Popik for his valuable research.)

Notes:

  1. 1984, With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba by Arnold Samuelson, Quote Page 11, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1985 January, Esquire: Man At His Best, Volume 103, Number 1, Where’s Papa?: Awash in a sea of Hemingway bios by James Kaplan, Start Page 114, Quote Page 115, Published by Esquire Associates, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1989, Words of Wisdom: More Good Advice, Compiled and edited by William Safire and Leonard Safir, Topic: Literary Composition, Quote Page 222, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1997, Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work, Edited by Alan Cheuse and Nicholas Delbanco, Bennington College Commencement Address, Date: June 12, 1981, Start Page 172, Quote Page 177, Columbia University Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)