A Writer Is One To Whom Writing Comes Harder Than To Anybody Else

Thomas Mann? H. T. Lowe-Porter? Franz Leppmann? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Writing is an agonizing process requiring multiple drafts for some of its most skilled practitioners. Here are three versions of a pertinent quip:

(1) The writer is a person who has a hard time writing.

(2) A writer is a one who finds writing more difficult than other people.

(3) A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

This saying has been ascribed to the Nobel-Prize-winning German literary figure Thomas Mann. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1903 Thomas Mann published a novella titled “Tristan” which included a character named Detlev Spinell who was an eccentric self-important writer. The omniscient narrator employed the quip while commenting on Spinell’s meager output. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1909, Tristan: Sechs Novellen (Tristan: Six Short Stories) by Thomas Mann, Section: Tristan, Start Page 19, Quote Page 70, S. Fisher, Berlin, Deutschland. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

Die Worte schienen ihm durchaus nicht zuzuströmen, für einen, dessen bürgerlicher Beruf das Schreiben ist, kam er jämmerlich langsam von der Stelle, und wer ihn sah, mußte zu der Anschauung gelangen, daß ein Schriftsteller ein Mann ist, dem das Schreiben schwerer fällt, als allen anderen Leuten.

The passage above has been translated into English by H. T. Lowe-Porter as follows:[ref] 1963 (1954 Copyright), Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories by Thomas Mann, Translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter, Chapter: Tristan, Start Page 320, Quote Page 349 and 350, Vintage Books, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

For his words did not come in a rush; they came with such pathetic slowness, considering the man was a writer by trade, you would have drawn the conclusion, watching him, that a writer is one to whom writing comes harder than to anybody else.

Thus, the story context reveals that Mann’s remark was not initially intended to apply to all writers. Instead, he aimed the comical barb at one fictional character. However, the citations in 1939 and 1946 given further below suggest that during interviews Mann did apply the statement to writers more generally.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1916 Franz Leppmann published a biography in German of Thomas Mann which included an instance of the saying. Leppmann referenced “Tristan”, but he presented a different phrasing:[ref] 1916 (no visible date; book review appeared in September 1916), Thomas Mann by Franz Leppmann, Chapter: Das Wesen des Talentes (The Essence of Talent), Quote Page 62 and 63, Arel Juncker Verlag, Berlin & Charlottenburg, Deutschland. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

Und im „Tristan“ heißt es geradezu: „Ein Schriftsteller ist ein Mensch, dem das Schreiben besonders schwer fällt!“

The text above may be translated into English as follows:

And in “Tristan” it says: “A writer is a person who finds it particularly difficult to write!”

In September 1916 Leppmann’s biography of Mann was reviewed in the journal “Die Schöne Literatur” (“The Beautiful Literature”), and a slightly different version of the saying was printed:[ref] 1916 September, Die Schöne Literatur (The Beautiful Literature), Volume 17, Number 18, Thomas Mann, (Book Review of “Thomas Mann” by Franz Leppmann), Quote Column 278, Leipzig, Deutschland. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

ein Schriftsteller sei ein Mensch, dem das Schreiben besonders schwer fällt.

In 1939 a columnist in a Columbus, Indiana newspaper printed a brief remark about Thomas Mann:[ref] 1939 June 1, The Evening Republican, No News Is Good News, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Columbus, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Tom, the exiled; German novelist, who sometimes spends all day getting a couple hundred words to suit him, says, “A writer is a person to whom writing is more difficult than to other people”.

In 1946 a United Press journalist spoke to Mann in Chicago, Illinois after a major chest operation, and Mann employed the saying:[ref] 1946 May 21, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, German Novelist Mann Is Gloomy On World Outlook (United Press), Quote Page 9, Column 5, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Mann writes painstakingly, often no more than 40 lines a day. “A writer is a man who finds writing more difficult than other men,” he said, blue-gray eyes quickened with merriment.

In 1957 the “Orlando Sentinel” of Florida published a comment made by author B. J. Chute:[ref] 1957 November 5, The Orlando Sentinel Readers Provide Life To Authors: B.J. Chute (Continuation title: Authors Rely On Readers For Life, B. J. Chute Says) by Sumner Rand (Staff Writer), Start Page 1A, Quote Page 3A, Column 2, Orlando, Florida. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“Writers are people who find writing harder than other people do,” Miss Chute quoted Thomas Mann. “I’ve never found an easy way to do it.”

In 1968 instructor Donald M. Murray published “A Writer Teaches Writing: A Practical Method of Teaching Composition”. Murray stated that he had been a paratrooper during World War II:[ref] 1968, A Writer Teaches Writing: A Practical Method of Teaching Composition by Donald M. Murray, Chapter 1: The Writer’s Seven Skills, Section 5: He Writes, Quote Page 8, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

I was trained to overcome my fear, to jump despite it. Yet, as much terror as I felt stepping out of an airplane, I feel more terror facing the empty page.

“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” is a definition attributed to Thomas Mann.

The 1988 compilation “Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations” included an entry for the saying:[ref] 1988, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations, Compiled by James B. Simpson, Topic: Literature, Writers & Editors, Quote Page 311, Column 1, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
Recalled on his death 12 Aug 55

The 1990 compilation “What a Piece of Work Is Man!: Camp’s Unfamiliar Quotations from 2,000 B.C. to the Present” also contained an entry for the saying:[ref] 1990, What a Piece of Work Is Man!: Camp’s Unfamiliar Quotations from 2,000 B.C. to the Present by Wesley D. Camp, Topic: Writer, Quote Page 459, Prentice Hall, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades, 1947

QI was unable to confirm the citation given above; QI examined a 1947 edition of “Essays of Three Decades” and did not find the quotation.

In 2001 the saying continued to circulate. The “San Francisco Examiner” printed the following:[ref] 2001 February 16, San Francisco Examiner, Our Guy in L.A.: The write stuff (Continuation title: The write stuff) by Mark Miller, Start Page C1, Quote Page C8, Column 2, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Thomas Mann, who did time in L.A., called writers people for whom writing is much harder than it is for everyone else. Most people who don’t write for a living, however, know that writing is easy.

In conclusion, Thomas Mann should receive credit for this saying based on its occurrence in the 1903 novella “Tristan”. Translator H. T. Lowe-Porter crafted an accurate English rendition. Mann also used the expression during a 1946 interview.

(Great thanks to Paul Holdengraber whose tweet led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Mardy Grothe who included this saying in “Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths”.)

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