Ernest Hemingway? Gowan McGland? Dylan Thomas? Peter De Vries? F. Scott Fitzgerald? James Joyce? Stephen Fry? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: “Alcohol loosens the tongue” is an old saying that some authors treat with reverence. But the resultant lubricated poetry and prose may require a red pencil. The famous writer Ernest Hemingway reportedly made one of the following remarks:
- Write drunk, edit sober.
- Write drunk, revise sober.
I cannot find a solid citation. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: Researchers have been unable to find this saying in the output of Ernest Hemingway who died in 1961, and it is unlikely that he ever said it or wrote it.
The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the 1964 novel “Reuben, Reuben” by the humorist Peter De Vries which included a character named Gowan McGland whose behaviors and eccentricities were partially modeled on the celebrated Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
At the beginning of chapter twenty-one McGland was reviewing a previously written draft of a poem. Now that he was sober he excised two lines that he considered dreadful. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
He remembered something he had told a New York journalist in an interview about his “working habits,” a dull subject about which people remained curiously interested in the case of writers and artists. “Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober,” he had said, “and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”
QI conjectures that the words of De Vries evolved and were reassigned to the more prominent Hemingway who was certainly known to take a drink.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Multiple literary luminaries did imbibe while writing. The French translator of William Faulkner visited him in 1937 hoping to obtain clarifications for some difficult sections of his works. The translator was impressed by Faulkner’s mastery of the intricacies of his own novels particularly “The Sound and the Fury”. However, there was one sentence that even Faulkner found impenetrable: 2
He read it, reread it, then began to laugh. “I have absolutely no idea of what I meant,” he admitted. “You see, I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach; so many ideas that I can’t remember in the morning pop into my head. As for the sentence in question, I must have had something in mind, but I can’t tell you what.”
In Hemingway’s memoir “A Moveable Feast” he depicted alcohol as an aid to eloquence. In particular, he explained the creation of a well-turned phrase by suggesting that the originator was probably drunk. The chain of events that led to the utterance began with a malfunctioning Model T Ford owned by Gertrude Stein who was the host of an influential Paris salon. A mechanic was unable to rapidly repair the vehicle, and Stein complained to the patron, i.e., the boss. The patron then addressed the mechanic harshly with a French phrase that later became famous in English: “You are all a génération perdue”, i.e., “a lost generation”. Stein relayed the remark to Hemingway and stated: 3
“All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
“Really?” I said.
“You are,” she insisted. “You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death….”
Hemingway disagreed with Stein, and even pointed to a positive facet of alcohol:
‘The boy’s patron was probably drunk by eleven o’clock in the morning,’ I said. ‘That’s why he makes such lovely phrases.’
‘Don’t argue with me, Hemingway,’ Miss Stein said. ‘It does no good at all. You’re all a lost generation, exactly as the garage keeper said.’
In 1966 a columnist in “The Writer” was impressed by the nascent dual adages crafted by De Vries and reprinted them in the magazine while crediting the humorist’s vivid character Gowan McGland: 4
“Sometimes l write drunk and revise sober,” he had said, “and sometimes l write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”
In 1984 a journalist at “The Sacramento Bee” in Sacramento, California described the advice he received years ago when he entered the profession. This instance of the adage used “edit” instead of “revise”: 5
Write drunk and edit sober, was the first lesson a veteran gave me when I went to work in San Francisco years ago.
Charles Bukowski was another author whose process of composition has been associated with alcohol. During a 1989 interview published in the journal “Arete” he did state that for a period he was dependent on alcohol. The first sentence in this excerpt was a question posed by the interviewer: 6
For you, is there a difference between writing done while drunk and writing done while sober? Does one state lend itself better to writing?
I used to always write while drinking and/or drunk. I never thought I could write without the bottle. But the last five or six months I have had an illness that has limited my drinking. So I sat down and wrote without the bottle, and it all came out just the same. So it doesn’t matter. Or maybe I write like I’m drunk when I’m sober.
In 1995 “Half Crazy: A Novel” by J. M. McDonell credited Joyce, presumably James Joyce: 7
Back home, I followed part one of Joyce’s dictum to write drunk and edit sober.
Also in 1995 a discussion thread about alcohol and literature occurred in the distributed forum called Usenet within a newsgroup called rec.arts.books. One participant shared the saying but no ascription was provided: 8
>: of course, there is the whole sufi wine as god’s love stuff, and
>: bukowski, as well as my favorite line by claude mckay–gin is more
>: forgetting than all the waters of lethe. what else?
“Write drunk; edit sober.”
In 1996 an Associated Press article reported on the gift of a large collection to the University of South Carolina by an English professor at the school named Matthew Bruccoli. The collection included a galley proof of the acclaimed novel “The Great Gatsby” and numerous additional items all linked to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Bruccoli addressed the legend that Fitzgerald wrote while he was inebriated: 9
“He lived hard. He was an alcoholic,” Bruccoli said. But, the professor was quick to note: “He didn’t write drunk; he wrote sober.”
In 2005 a participant in the Usenet newsgroup rec.woodworking credited Ernest Hemingway with an instance of the saying. No supporting citation was offered for the fanciful ascription: 10
I like what Hemingway said:
“Write it so it sounds nice and let the goddamned editor clean it up if you can trust him not to make a balls out of it.”
He also said:
“Write drunk – edit sober”.
I don’t think he meant that in a literal sense – but then…
In 2013 an article in “The Guardian” of London asked “Why do writers drink?” The author also credited Hemingway with the saying: 11
The man takes a drink, then the drink takes the man. Liberation becomes stupor. “Write drunk; edit sober” is Hemingway’s much-quoted advice. But the rat-arsed aren’t capable of writing. After a point, the crutch becomes a cudgel.
In 2015 the English comedian Stephen Fry published a memoir that included a variant ascribed to Fitzgerald: 12
Tweet in haste, repent at leisure, as I have learned. Sorely. Write in haste, revise at leisure, as experience has also taught me. ‘I can write drunk, but must revise sober,’ F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have told his editor, Maxwell Perkins.
In conclusion, Peter De Vries should be credited with the words he wrote in 1964. He presented two statements: “write drunk and revise sober” and “write sober and revise drunk”; however, De Vries’s character was simply describing his own divergent behaviors and not offering guidance; hence, neither expression qualified as an adage. In 1984 a journalist revealed that the first had been transformed into a newsroom adage. The ascriptions to Hemingway, Joyce, and Fitzgerald are unsupported.
Image Notes: Person writing in a notebook from StockSnap at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Urban Legends @urbanlegendshu whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Barry Popik, the volunteer editors at Wikiquote, and the forum participants at Reddit for their valuable work on this topic.)
- 1964, Reuben, Reuben by Peter De Vries, Chapter 21, Quote Page 242, Chapter 30, Published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1999, Conversations with William Faulkner, Edited by M. Thomas Inge, (Collection of William Faulkner interviews from miscellaneous publications), Series: Literary Conversations Series, Chapter: The Faulkner I Knew by Maurice Edgar Coindreau, (Reprinted from “The Time of William Faulkner: A French View of Modern American Fiction”, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, South Caroline, 1971), Start Page 18, Quote Page 21, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1964 April 10, LIFE, Paris by Ernest Hemingway, (Excerpt from “A Moveable Feast”) Start Page 60, Quote Page 65, Time Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1966 March, The Writer, Off the Cuff: The Splendid Night of Mrs. Owl by Lesley Conger, Start Page 6, Quote Page 7, Published by The Writer, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1984 December 3, The Sacramento Bee, Section: Scene, Drying Out by Don Stanley, Quote Page B03, Sacramento, California. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2003, Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews & Encounters: 1963-1993 by Charles Bukowski, Edited by David Stephen Calonne, Charles Bukowski Interview by Alden Mills, (Originally published: “Charles Bukowski” Alden Mills, Arete, July/August 1989, Pages 66-69, 73, 76-77), Start Page 240, Quote Page 241, Published by Sun Dog Press, Northville, Michigan. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1995, Half Crazy: A Novel by J. M. McDonell, Quote Page 101, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1995 July 18, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.arts.books, From: Katherine Catmull @bga.com, Subject: Re: booze and lit. (Google Groups Search; Accessed September 20, 2016) link ↩
- 1996 June 19, Charlotte Observer, Section: York, USC Displays Huge Fitzgerald Collection by Mona Breckenridge (Associated Press), Quote Page 2Y, Charlotte, North Carolina. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2005 November 6, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.woodworking, From: Tom Watson @erehwon.com, Subject: Re: A sad feeling…, (Google Groups Search; Accessed September 20, 2016) link ↩
- 2013 July 20, The Guardian, Why do writers drink? by Blake Morrison, (Accessed theguardian.com September 21, 2016) link ↩
- 2015, More Fool Me: A Memoir by Stephen Fry, Section: Unexpected Diversion Ahead, Unnumbered Page, The Overlook Press, New York. (Google Books Full View) ↩