Thomas Wolfe? Red Smith? Paul Gallico? Friedrich Nietzsche? Ernest Hemingway? Gene Fowler? Jeff MacNelly? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Whenever I have trouble writing I am reminded of a brilliant saying that uses a horrifyingly expressive metaphor to describe the difficult process of composition:
Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.
Here is another version of the saying that I found while Googling:
There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.
I have seen statements like this credited to the prominent sports columnist Red Smith and to the literary figures Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. Could you explore this quotation?
Quote Investigator: There is significant evidence that Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith used a version of this quote by 1949. In April of that year the influential and widely syndicated newspaper columnist Walter Winchell wrote. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. …”Why, no,” dead-panned Red. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
This is the earliest known attribution to Smith and it was located by top-notch researcher Bill Mullins. But a few years earlier another novelist and highly-paid sportswriter used the same metaphor to describe the often arduous task of putting words down on paper. In the 1946 book “Confessions of a Story Writer” Paul Gallico wrote: 2
It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.
Today Gallico is perhaps best known for the novel The Poseidon Adventure which was made into a blockbuster disaster movie in 1972. The popular work was remade for television and for theatrical release in the 2000s. He also wrote the 1941 story Lou Gehrig: Pride of the Yankees that was made into the successful film The Pride of the Yankees.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1855 the difficulty of writing was described by saying that words came from an author “drop by drop”. Later sayings presented below mentioned drops of blood. This precursor “drop by drop” metaphor was attributed to the Reverend Sydney Smith by his daughter Lady Saba Smith Holland. The article appeared in Harper’s Magazine and the straining poet mentioned was Thomas Campbell: 3
Campbell wrote with great toil; poetry came from him drop by drop. Sydney Smith used to say that when he was delivered of a couplet, he took to his bed, had straw laid down, the knocker tied up, and expected his friends to call and make inquiries; the answer at the door being invariably, “Mr. Campbell and his little couplet are doing as well as can be expected!” When he produced an Alexandrine, he kept his bed a day longer.
In the same year 1855 Smith Holland published a two volume work about her father entitled “A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith”. The “drop by drop” metaphor appeared here also, but the remark was directed toward the British statesman Charles James Fox instead of Campbell: 4
Fox wrote drop by drop.
Quotation expert Ralph Keyes pointed out this precursor phrase in his valuable and entertaining book “The Quote Verifier”. 5
The philosophical novel “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” was composed by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche during the 1880s. The section “On Reading and Writing” included two aphoristic statements that are pertinent to the theme under exploration. The translation from German used here was performed by Walter Kaufmann: 6
Of all that is written I love only what a man has written with his blood. Write with blood, and you will experience that blood is spirit.
Whoever writes in blood and aphorisms does not want to be read but to be learned by heart.
In 1928 the New York Times printed an article that discussed a form of capital punishment in the ancient world. This background gives the central metaphor a bracing historical resonance: 7
The ancients had a higher regard for the dignity of manhood. In ancient Greece and Rome the citizen who was condemned to die was permitted to open his veins and bleed to death in his home.
In 1946 Paul Gallico used the phrase “open your veins and bleed”, and in 1949 the same phrase was attributed to “Red Smith” by the columnist Walter Winchell. The details for these two citations were presented earlier in this article.
In 1956 the saying was used in a newspaper column in Georgia without any attribution: 8
For experienced newsmen, nothing is easier than covering an election. All that’s necessary is to sit down at a typewriter open your veins and bleed.
In 1961 Time magazine published an article about sports journalists that included a variant of the expression under investigation credited to Red Smith. This version was located by top-flight researcher Victor Steinbok. It did not mention a vein but it did add “drops of blood”: 9
Red is not wide-eyed about the world of sports: “These are still games that little boys can play. The future of civilization is not at stake.” But like all good writers in any field, he takes sportswriting in dead earnest. “Writing a column is easy,” he once said. “You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead.”
In 1963 The Rotarian printed a version of the saying ascribed to Smith that was similar to the one in Time magazine. However, “drops of blood” were transformed into “beads of blood”: 10
He was once asked how he managed to turn out a newspaper column every day. “Turning out a column is easy,” he said. “I just sit at my typewriter until beads of blood form on my forehead.”
In 1972 a version of the adage was credited to the important literary figure Thomas Wolfe. The attribution appeared in the work “Sweet Agony” by Gene Olson as noted in the major reference work The Yale Book of Quotations: 11
Writing is easy. Just put a sheet of paper in the typewriter and start bleeding.
In 1973 an instance of the saying was implausibly credited to the prominent writer Ernest Hemingway in a self-help book directed at aspiring authors titled “The Craft of Fiction” by William C. Knott. Hemingway died in 1961, and this volume contained the earliest ascription of the saying to Hemingway that is known to QI: 12
But it is hard, bitterly hard work. As Hemingway is reported to have said, “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.” Internally, of course. On the outside all that is visible is cold sweat and a distracted air.
In 1980 a New York Times columnist described a new volume of quotations compiled by James Charlton. The book in embryonic form was used as a giveaway at a bookseller’s convention, and the popularity of the material inspired the publisher to create an expanded work “The Writer’s Quotation Book: A Literary Companion”.
This collection attributed a version of the saying to the journalist and author Gene Fowler. This is the first instance that QI knows of in which Fowler was given credit: 13
Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at the blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead. Gene Fowler
Also, in 1980 a book review in the New York Times depicted the comments of a fictional book editor exhorting a reluctant writer. The core saying was used without attribution and presented comically: 14
“Do a non-fiction book about what a single man is ‘going through,’ as you put it. Call it something like ‘A Man in a Woman’s World.’ Just open a vein and let it bleed.”
In February 1982 the cartoonist Jeff MacNelly included an extended version of the saying in his syndicated comic strip “Shoe”. The memorable strip was preserved in a scrapbook by one reader, and posted on a wall by another reader. The text of the strip was reprinted in a book about writing titled “Writing on Both Sides of the Brain”: 15 16
“Writing is simple, Muffy,” says Jeff MacNelly’s Perfesser in the comic strip Shoe. “First, you have to make sure you have plenty of paper. . . sharp pencils. . . typewriter ribbon. Then put your belly up to your desk. . . roll a sheet of paper into the typewriter. . . and stare at it until beads of blood appear on your forehead.”
In 1993 a hybrid combination of the two main variants ascribed to Red Smith was printed in Cincinnati Magazine: 17
In other words, you didn’t have to sit down at the typewriter and, as the late Red Smith of the New York Times put it, open a vein in your forehead and let it bleed.
In 2000 the comic book writer Mark Waid was interviewed at the Comic Book Resources website. He discussed an informal lecture that he has given on multiple occasions at a convention: 18
The lesson I most mercilessly bludgeon the classes with (besides clarity, clarity, clarity) is to write from the heart and project themselves into the characters whose lives they want to chronicle. To open up their goddamned veins and bleed into the keyboard and MAKE. ME. FEEL. It’s not hard to do, even if you’re writing about superbeings who are smart and powerful enough to do anything but remember to wear their underwear inside their pants.
In conclusion, the 1949 citation justifies crediting Red Smith with the sardonic quotation published in Winchell’s column. Yet, Paul Gallico’s earnest quotation in 1946 takes chronological precedence, and he apparently gave the saying its modern metaphorical form.
The status of the later variants mentioning drops of blood on the forehead is not clear. Perhaps Smith pronounced more than one version, but there is no direct evidence of this, only indirect attributions.
The earliest citations to the famous literary figures Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway occurred many years after their deaths. No supporting evidence was given, and the basic saying was already in circulation. Thus, there is no substantive evidence connecting the saying to Wolfe and Hemingway.
(This investigation and blog posting were motivated by a mailing-list inquiry from Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Books of Quotations, and by a list of quotations compiled by the author Wendy Thornton. Special thanks to Tom Fuller for locating the 1973 Hemingway attribution. Also, great thanks to Meredith Dixon and Katherine Harper for providing information about the Jeff MacNelly comic strip. Also, much thanks to Angie Byers who pointed out a relevant quotation in Friedrich Nietzsche’s oeuvre.)
Update History: On September 18, 2011 the 1980 citation for Gene Fowler was added. Also, on December 9 and December 13, 2012 the citation for Ernest Hemingway and the citation for Jeff MacNelly were added.
Update history: On February 19, 2013 the citation to Friedrich Nietzsche’s work was added.
- 1949 April 06, Naugatuck Daily News, Walter Winchell In New York, Page 4, Column 5, Naugatuck, Connecticut. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1946, Confessions of a Story Writer by Paul Gallico, Page 576, A Borzoi Book Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper; Thanks to Stephen Goranson for checking this cite on paper) link ↩
- 1855 August, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, The Reverend Sydney Smith by Saba Holland [Lady Holland], Start Page 367, Quote Page 371, Column 1, Volume 11, Harper’s Magazine Co., New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1855, A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith by Lady Saba Smith Holland, Volume 1 of 2, page 309, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 257 and 343, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1978 (Copyright 1954), Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, (Translated by Walter Kaufmann), Section: On Reading and Writing, Quote Page 40, Penguin Books, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1928 January 15, New York Times, Debate Abolition of Death Penalty, Page 27, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1956 June 17, Augusta Chronicle, Week in Review by John Harper, Page 2, Column 4, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1961 September 01, Time magazine, The Press: Good Sports, Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine archive; Accessed 2011 September 14) link ↩
- 1963 June, The Rotarian, In Pursuit of Excellence by Charles F. Moore, Jr., Start Page 27, Quote Page 56, Column 3, Published by Rotary International. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Thomas Wolfe, Page 833, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1973, The Craft of Fiction by William C. Knott, Part One: The World of Fiction, Chapter 3: You as a Writer, Quote Page 18, Reston Pub. Co., Reston, Virginia. (Verified on paper; Thanks to Tom Fuller and the George Mason University library system) ↩
- 1980 August 10, New York Times, BOOK ENDS: Writers on Writing by Randolph Hogan, Page BR9, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1980 December 28, New York Times, Bachelor’s Complaint by Robert Miner [Review of No Hard Feelings by Marty Bell], Page BR2, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1982 February 21, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sunday Comic Section, Shoe by Jeff MacNelly, [GNB Page 233], Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1987, Writing on both sides of the brain by Henriette Anne Klauser, Chapter 2, Quote Page 15, HarperCollins, New York. link (Amazon Look Inside; Text of comic strip verified by Katherine Harper on a paper copy preserved in a scrapbook.) ↩
- 1993 May, Cincinnati Magazine, Harmonizing by Michael Graham, Start Page 31, Quote Page 33, Published by Emmis Communications. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 2000 September 15, Comic Book Resources, Issue #42, Come In Alone: by Warren Ellis [Interview with Mark Waid], CBR, Los Angeles, California. (Accessed online at comicbookresources.com on 2011 September 14) link ↩