William Faulkner? Peter De Vries? Herman Wouk? Somerset Maugham? Jane Yolen? Raymond Chandler? Anonymous?
I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.
I have seen these words attributed to the satiric New Yorker writer Peter De Vries, the Nobelist William Faulkner, and playwright-novelist Somerset Maugham. Who do you think originated this quip?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in 1966 in a “Washington Post” profile of the bestselling author Herman Wouk who was best known for the novels “The Caine Mutiny”, “The Winds of War”, and “War and Remembrance”. Wouk ascribed the remark to William Faulkner. The phrasing differed from the version provided by the questioner, but the underlying joke was the same. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1
For a writer with so many books to his credit, he finds writing an exceedingly difficult process of “gritting one’s teeth and putting down one word after another.” He averages 1500 to 2000 words a day and likes to quote William Faulkner: “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.”
This Wouk profile was reprinted in several newspapers including the “Des Moines Register” in Iowa 2 and the “Springfield Union” in Massachusetts. 3 Faulkner died in 1962, four years before the story was published, and QI has not yet located any direct support for the attribution.
In 1971 the poet and novelist Reynolds Price was interviewed in “The Raleigh News and Observer” of North Carolina, and he presented a version of the jest credited to William Faulkner: 4
Someone once asked Mr. Faulkner if he wrote by inspiration or habit and he said he wrote by inspiration, but luckily inspiration arrived at 9 every morning. I know what that means. And there is a kind of magic about keeping the stride once you’ve got it going.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1980 “The Observer” newspaper of London printed a version of the quip in a feature called “Sayings of the week”. Seven unrelated quotations were listed without specific citations. This instance of the saying exactly matched the one given by the questioner and was attributed to Peter De Vries: 5
I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning. — Peter DeVries.
In 1986 the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, Washington printed a story about the actor Charlton Heston and his production of the theatrical piece “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial”. Heston was directing and also starring in the work which was adapted from Wouk’s novel “The Caine Mutiny”. The article contained statements from Wouk which included another phrasing of the joke attributed to Faulkner: 6
Heston said he is buoyed by the adrenaline that accompanies theater acting. “But what amazes me is the writer who sits by himself in a lonely room, with a cup of coffee, facing a blank piece of paper.”
Wouk elaborated on that predicament. He said that writer William Faulkner was asked, ‘Mr. Faulkner, do you write on inspiration or do you write on a schedule?’ Faulkner replied. ‘Well, of course I write on inspiration. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at a quarter past nine.’
In 1986 the prominent science fiction and fantasy author Jane Yolen presented a version of the remark and credited William Faulkner: 7
My writing day begins at eight in the morning, after the children are off to school, and sometimes does not end until four or five in the afternoon. I believe in something William Faulkner said: “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired every day at nine o’clock.” For me writing is work and pleasure, and I am very focused.
In 1989 Jane Yolen published “Guide to Writing for Children” and the epigraph to chapter 2 was a slightly different version of the words attributed to Faulkner: 8
I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.
In 1996 the author and researcher Ralph Keyes released “The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear” which contained intriguing information about the writing habits of well-known authors. Keyes stated that Faulkner’s writing day ended relatively early: 9
Trollope thought the key to productivity was being at his desk by 5:30 every morning. Paul Valéry started writing at 5:00 A.M. and seldom wrote past 9:00. Faulkner considered his writing day over by 10:30 or 11:00. For most writers, the morning is a fertile time.
By 2002 the humorous comment had been assigned to the notable author Somerset Maugham: 10
Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
In 2004 the multi-award-winning science fiction author Connie Willis was interviewed in “The Writer” magazine, and she assigned the remark to detective storyteller Raymond Chandler: 11
Do you have a writing routine, or do you write when the muse moves you?
As Raymond Chandler said, “I only write when I’m inspired. Luckily, I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” I try to write four hours a day (not counting letters, interviews, contracts, phone calls, etc.).
In conclusion, the earliest evidence found by QI points to William Faulkner as the originator of this entertaining comment, but the support is not strong because it is indirect, and it appeared a few years after the death of Faulkner. Herman Wouk was an important locus for popularization, but he disclaimed credit.
Currently, the earliest published ascription to Peter De Vries occurred fourteen years after the jest had entered circulation. Hence, it seems unlikely he created it though he may have spoken or written a version. Attributions to Somerset Maugham and Raymond Chandler have no substantive support at this time. Perhaps future discoveries will help to clarify authorship.
Image Notes: Herman Wouk in 1955; copyright has expired; obtained via Wikimedia Commons. Clock displaying 9 from Nemo at Pixabay. William Faulkner in 1954 by Carl Van Vechten from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Many thanks to BTC @3rdFloorSound whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration. Great thanks to Stephen Goranson for accessing the 1980 citation in The Observer.)
Update History: Three panel image added November 13, 2014.
- 1966 November 13, Washington Post, Writing Is Workaday For Herman Wouk: Inspiration Strikes at Nine Every Morning by Meryle Secrest (Washington Post Staff Writer), Quote Page F3, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (Note: ProQuest database gives the incorrect author name of Meryle Secret) ↩
- 1966 November 24, Des Moines Register, The Wouk Formula For Writing Success by Meryle Secrest (Acknowledgement to The Washington Post), Quote Page 16, Des Moines, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1966 December 11, 1966, Springfield Union, Herman Wouk Tells What Literary Success Means by Meryle Secret, (Acknowledgement Washington Post News Service), Quote Page 18C, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1991, Conversations with Reynolds Price, Edited by Jefferson Humphries, (A Glimpse into the Very Private World of a Novelist, Interview of Reynolds Price by Rod Cockshutt, Reprinted from The Raleigh News and Observer, Date: January 24, 1971, Section: 4, 3) Start Page 30, Quote Page 34 and 35, Univ. Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi, (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1980 September 28, The Observer, Sayings of the week, Quote Page 12, Column 3, London, UK. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1986 May 14, Spokesman-Review, Heston Tackles A Stage ‘mutiny’, Quote Page C2, Column 3, Spokane, Washington. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1986, Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Edited by Adele Sarkissian, Article: “Jane Yolen (1939-)” Start Page 327, Quote Page 343, Column 2, Gale Research Co., Detroit, Michigan. (Gale Literature Collections, Something About The Author Online) ↩
- 1989, Guide to Writing for Children by Jane Yolen, (Epigraph to Chapter 2), Quote Page 12, The Writer, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2003 (First Owl Books Edition 1996), The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 154, Henry Holt and Company, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2012 (2002 Copyright), The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield, Quote Page 64, Black Irish Entertainment, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- Issue Date: 2004 November, Periodical: The Writer, Article Title: Transcending genres: Connie Willis may be the most honored science-fiction writer, but to her it’s all just good storytelling, Author: Linda DuVal, Page: 24. (Database: Academic OneFile: Gale Cengage Learning) ↩