Writing Is the Art of Applying the Seat of the Pants to the Seat of the Chair

Sinclair Lewis? Mary Heaton Vorse? Felicia Gizycka? Robert Benchley? Douglas Fairbanks Jr.? Marianne Gingher? Stevie Cameron? Andrew Hudgins? Nora Roberts? Stephen King? Oliver Stone? Anonymous?

vorse11Dear Quote Investigator: An astonishingly simple stratagem has been recommended to anyone who wishes to become a famous author, playwright, screenwriter, or composer. The secret to success and productivity is to:

Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

The expression of this thought has evolved, and in modern times blunt phrasing is often employed:

Keep your butt in the chair.
Put your ass on the chair.

In other words, diligence, tenacity, and time are the required ingredients for effective composition. The admonition above has been attributed to a wide variety of well-known scribblers and artists, e.g., Sinclair Lewis, Nora Roberts, Robert Benchley, Stephen King, and Oliver Stone. Would you please put your butt in the chair and write something edifying on this topic?

Quote Investigator: The writer and activist Mary Heaton Vorse gave this advice to a young and impressionable Sinclair Lewis in 1911 according to Lewis who followed the counsel and later received a Nobel Prize in Literature. Lewis reported the words of Vorse in an article titled “Breaking into Print” which was published in “The Colophon: A Quarterly for Bookmen” in 1937. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

And as the recipe for writing, all writing, I remember no high-flown counsel but always and only Mary Heaton Vorse’s jibe, delivered to a bunch of young and mostly incompetent hopefuls back in 1911: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Lewis spent parts of 1911 and 1912 under the tutelage of Vorse, and she once hid his pants and shoes while locking him in his room to emphatically encourage the novice scribe. A detailed citation is given further below.

This piece of writing advice appeared in print before the 1937 article by Lewis, but QI thinks that the 1911 date given by him was probably accurate. Hence, based on current evidence Mary Heaton Vorse should be credited with the adage above.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1924 a commentator in a Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada newspaper discussed a novel called “Joseph Vance”. He asserted that simply placing one’s posterior on a chair would enable the production of numerous books and columns. The columnist implausibly asserted that the proffered formula would work for “anybody”: 2

And that enormous labor of writing “Joseph Vance” was undoubtedly accomplished with seat of pants to seat of chair how many weary and happy hours? Just think of the bone and brain labor of it!

Anybody with seat of pants to seat of chair can produce books by the shelf-ful, and columns and columns. But will anyone be just wild to read them without being forced?

In April 1931 a newspaper in Iowa reprinted the advice offered to a student in “Scholastic” magazine. The pupil was nervous and unable to speak when called upon to give an oral recitation. The “Scholastic” guidance suggested that the pants-to-chair injunction was useful for learning and memorization: 3

I recommend the tiresome old virtue of concentration as the basis for glib recitations. If you keep the seat of your pants on the seat of your chair during long study periods you will find yourself able to think quickly when you are on your feet.

In June 1931 “The Editor: The Journal of Information for Literary Workers” printed a short article by someone using the pseudonym “The Gleaner”. An instance of the writing adage was attributed to an unnamed author. This was the earliest published strong match located by QI: 4

An American author has said that the key to successful writing may be found in the phrase, “seat of pants to seat of chair.” This great ability among writers is rare, indeed. Literature is a hard taskmaster.

In 1932 the glamorous Countess Felicia Gizycka published a popular book and credited Sinclair Lewis with the advice that enabled her to create the novel: 5

Countess Felicia Gizycka, daughter of the Washington editor. Eleanor Medill Patterson, is making quite a sensation with her first book The House of Violence. The secret of writing, she said, was told her by Sinclair Lewis. “He said the way to write was to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of a chair.” The Countess adds, “I think that is an accurate way of putting it as well as a very charming one.”

As noted at the beginning of this article, in early 1937 Sinclair Lewis published an article in “The Colophon” which credited Mary Heaton Vorse with providing him the crucial writing guidance he needed. Lewis received the advice in 1911; hence, he would have been able to relay it to Gizycka before 1932.

In March 1937 “The New York Times” referred to the article in “The Colophon”. The cogent instruction which Vorse gave to Lewis was reprinted: 6

“And as for the recipe for writing, all writing, I remember no high-flown counsel but always and only Mary Heaton Vorse’s gibe, delivered to a bunch of young and mostly incompetent hopefuls back in 1911:

“‘The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.'”

Also in March 1937 a widely-distributed Associated Press story about Lewis further spread the advice: 7

As a recipe for writers he repeats Mary Heaton Vorse’s remarks: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

In June 1937 an instance of the saying was attributed to the humorist and actor Robert Benchley: 8

Robert Benchley defines the art of writing: The bringing of the seat of one’s pants to the seat of one’s chair.

In 1938 the mass-circulation “Reader’s Digest” ascribed the statement to Vorse: 9

Mary Heaton Vorse advises young writers that:
The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. — Quoted in The Colophon

In April 1939 the powerful columnist Walter Winchell linked a variant of the saying to both the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sinclair Lewis: 10

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is quoted as saying: “Writing is 90 per cent applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair” . . . It was also a good observation when Sinclair Lewis said it.

In August 1939 Sinclair Lewis reminisced in the pages of “The Boston Daily Globe” about his experiences in 1911 and 1912. The Provincetown, Massachusetts author Mary Heaton Vorse used an extreme method to successfully goad him into writing a breakthrough novel during the summer of 1912. The anecdote revealed that Lewis was left with indelible memories from his period of apprenticeship: 11

“Yep,” mused Sinclair Lewis, “she took away my trousers and locked me in my room.”
“‘You’ll get out of there when you finish that book,’ she told me.” . . .

The confidence of Mrs. Vorse in this “skinny, lazy, would-be writer” was justified when, spurred by the trousers-and-padlock incident, he produced the successful “Our Mr. Wrenn.” . . .

“I’ll always remember one of Mrs. Vorse’s favorite sayings, ‘The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.'”

In September 1939 the student newspaper of Northwestern University in Illinois printed a strikingly generalized instance of the saying: 12

Always remember that the only real key to success is hard work. The best definition of genius ever presented was: genius is the ability to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

In 1940 a sports columnist in Oakland, California described the secret to writing, but he also stated that following the advice was difficult for him: 13

Early in life I was taught that the only secret of writing was the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair; but I haven’t learned it yet because I stall as long as possible, and it is rare indeed when this colyum is written more than a few hours before it rolls off the presses.

In 1960 a columnist in the “Los Angeles Times” indicated that the adage was appropriate for the music domain: 14

Handel was a composer as prolific as Bach, and since a large amount of his music was written on order for specific occasions, a good portion of it must have been accomplished by the good old process of applying seat of pants to chair and going to work.

The phrasing of the edict has diverged over time with “butt” and “ass” sometimes replacing “seat of the pants”. In 1988 Jeb Stuart who wrote the screenplay for the hit movie “Die Hard” was interviewed in a Charlotte, North Carolina newspaper. Stuart recalled his student days at the University of North Carolina from which he graduated in 1978. The writing teacher Marianne Gingher was a strong influence, and Stuart ascribed to her a version of the saying with the word “butt”: 15

I did my first creative writing (short stories) at Chapel Hill, where I (studied) with Marianne Gingher and Max Steele. They say you fall in love with your first instructor, and I remember a lot (Gingher) said: “Keep your butt in the chair. If you want to do this professionally, you have to do it even when you don’t feel like writing.”

In 1996 the prominent Canadian investigative journalist Stevie Cameron used an acronym to describe the central part of her writing process: 16

“I didn’t have a life for two years,” Cameron says. After eight months of “AOC,” or “ass on chair,” to write the book, it took another month to go over it for libel.

In 1997 “Cincinnati Magazine” published a profile of a married couple: novelist Erin McGraw and poet Andrew Hudgins. The adage was pronounced by Hudgins: 17

“You have to put your butt in the chair,” agrees Hudgins. “There’s a good number of people who want to be writers, but they don’t want to write. They want to dress the part, act the part, but not actually do the work.”

A 2002 book about yoga assigned an instance to a bestselling horror writer: 18

Stephen King says, “Writing equals ass in chair.”

In 2003 a message containing a miscellaneous collection of sayings about writing was sent to a Usenet discussion group called alt.quotations. One of the sayings was linked to the well-known director Oliver Stone, but the claim was doubly indirect. The message sender presented a quotation from television writer Howard Gordon who assigned the saying to Stone: 19

Start writing! Now! As Oliver Stone wrote: “Writing = ass in chair.”
Howard Gordon

In 2009 “The New Yorker” published a profile of the top-selling romance and mystery writer Nora Roberts who discussed her writing method: 20

. . . she said that she has one key commandment of writing: “Ass in the chair.”

In conclusion, QI believes that Mary Heaton Vorse should be credited with the words ascribed to her by Sinclair Lewis in “The Colophon” in 1937. It is true that an instance of the adage was published in 1931 with a vague attribution to an “American author”. It is also true that Lewis himself was credited in 1932. Nevertheless, Lewis stated that he heard the advice from Vorse in 1911, and his memories of her during the period were quite vivid.

QI hypothesizes that instances using the words “butt” and “ass” within this family of sayings were derived directly or indirectly from the Vorse’s statement.

Image Notes: Three illustrations from “The Breaking in of a Yachtsman’s Wife” by Mary Heaton Vorse published by Houghton, Mifflin in 1908. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to George Mannes who asked about “Success in writing = Ass plus chair”. Mannes found versions of this guidance attributed to Nora Roberts, Oliver Stone, Susannah Grant, and others. His inquiry led QI to examine a broad formulation of the saying and perform this exploration. Special thanks to John McChesney-Young for obtaining scans of the important June 1931 citation in “The Editor”.)

Notes:

  1. 1937 Winter, The Colophon: A Quarterly for Bookmen, New Series, Volume 2, Number 2, Breaking Into Print by Sinclair Lewis, Start Page 217, Quote Page 221, Published by Pynson Printers, Inc., New York. (Internal publication note stated that the issue was released in February; the New York Times article that reprinted part of text stated that the issue was released March 22, 1937)(Verified with scans from Carnegie Mellon, Posner Center Collection)
  2. 1924 March 13, The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, The Book You “Ought” to Read, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1931 April 29, Upper Des Moines-Republican, (The Algona Upper Des Moines), Algona Hi Lights, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Algona, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1931 June 13, The Editor: The Journal of Information for Literary Workers, Editor: A. N. Kane, Stray Bits by The Gleaner, Start Page 217, Quote Page 218, Column 2, Published Weekly at Book Hill, Highland Falls, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to the University of California, Berkeley library system)
  5. 1932 March 11, Middletown Times Herald, Orange Blossoms by Terry Reeves, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Middletown, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1937 March 22, New York Times, Writing ‘Good Job’ to Sinclair Lewis: Composition and Not Product What Matters, He Says in New Issue of Colophon Quote Page 25, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)
  7. 1937 March 22, Springfield Daily Republican, Sinclair Lewis, With No Salary, Once Fired for Asking ‘Raise’ (Associated Press), Quote Page 4, Column 4, Springfield, Massachusetts (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1937 June 27, Oakland Tribune, Section: Magazine and Fiction Section, High Cost of Marriage License Sent Leah Ray to Radio, Quote Page 2, (NArchive Page 60), Column 2, Oakland, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  9. 1938 January, Reader’s Digest, Volume 32, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 80, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1939 April 10, St. Petersburg Times, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 12, Column 4, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Google News Archive)
  11. 1939 August 15, Daily Boston Globe, Sinclair Lewis Joshes About Forced Writing: Remembers Being Locked Up Trouserless To Finish Book (Special Dispatch to the Globe), Start Page 1, Quote Page 1 and 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  12. 1939 September 26, Daily Northwestern, Freshman: take it away by The Editorial Board, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Evanston, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  13. 1940 November 09, Oakland Tribune, Cohn-ing Tower by Art Cohn (Sports Editor), Quote Page D1, Column 1, Oakland, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  14. 1960 January 10, Los Angeles Times, The Sounding Board: Awareness of Creative Process Aids Listener by Albert Goldberg, Quote Page E6, Column 4, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  15. 1988 August 2, Charlotte Observer, From Gastonia to Hollywood: The Making of a Screenwriter by Lawrence Toppman (Movie Writer), Section: Living, Quote Page 7A, Charlotte, North Carolina. (NewsBank Access World news)
  16. 1996 Spring, Ryerson Review of Journalism, The Cook, the Spy, the Prof and the Scribbler by Jazz Miller, Published by Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, Toronto, Canada. (Online archive of Ryerson Review of Journalism)
  17. 1997 December, Cincinnati Magazine, Volume 31, Number 3, House of Letters: Two UC professors have found literary renown and each other by Geoff Williams, Start Page 64, Quote Page 67, Column 1, (Google Books Full View) link
  18. 2010 (Copyright 2002), Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison, Section: Day 138, Unnumbered Page, An Anchor Books Original: Random House, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  19. 2003 November 13, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.quotations, From: syna…@hotmail.com (The Sanity Inspector), Subject: Re: The Writer’s Craft (Google Groups Search; Accessed September 25, 2015) link
  20. 2009 June 22, The New Yorker, Profiles: Real Romance: How Nora Roberts became America’s most popular novelist by Lauren Collins, New York. (Online New Yorker archive; accessed newyorker.com on September 24, 2015)