Writing Is Easy; You Just Open a Vein and Bleed

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.

Continue reading Writing Is Easy; You Just Open a Vein and Bleed


  1. 1949 April 06, Naugatuck Daily News, Walter Winchell In New York, Page 4, Column 5, Naugatuck, Connecticut. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 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

Computer Memory: 640K Ought to be Enough for Anyone

Bill Gates? James E. Fawcette? Nancy Andrews? Jerry Pournelle? InfoWorld? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Bill Gates is the one of the richest men in the world, but that does not mean that he correctly foresaw the future. In the early days of the personal computer industry Gates supposedly said the following about the IBM PC:

 640K ought to be enough for anyone.

The term 640K refers to 640 kilobytes of computer memory. But these days a computer often has a capacious memory that is tens of thousands of times larger, and this size continues to grow. The 640K limitation was once a real headache for programmers and users. This quote is notorious among computer enthusiasts and is typically dated to 1981, but Bill Gates has denied that he ever said it. Could you try to trace it?

Quote Investigator: During the 1990s Bill Gates wrote a syndicated newspaper column in which he answered questions from the public. When he was asked about the saying in 1996 he replied [BGLA]:

I’ve said some stupid things and some wrong things, but not that. No one involved in computers would ever say that a certain amount of memory is enough for all time.

The need for memory increases as computers get more potent and software gets more powerful. In fact, every couple of years the amount of memory address space needed to run whatever software is mainstream at the time just about doubles. This is well-known.

However, the computer periodical InfoWorld did attribute several statements to Gates that expressed acceptance or satisfaction regarding the 640K computer memory limitation. Top quotation expert Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, located the earliest version of this sentiment credited to Gates [BGNN]:

When we set the upper limit of PC-DOS at 640K, we thought nobody would ever need that much memory.  — William Gates, chairman of Microsoft

These words appeared at the beginning of an editorial written by James E. Fawcette published in the April 29, 1985 issue of InfoWorld. But no precise reference was given, and the words did not occur as part of an interview.

QI has located the earliest instance of a close match to the saying specified by the questioner. This is the version that is often attributed to Gates today. It appeared in InfoWorld magazine in January 1990 in an article that presented a timeline for the development of the PC industry in the 1980s. The remark ascribed to Gates was placed in quotation marks [BGSF]:

IBM introduces the PC and, with Microsoft, releases DOS (“640K ought to be enough for anyone” — Bill Gates)

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Computer Memory: 640K Ought to be Enough for Anyone

Update: Not Everything That Counts Can be Counted

Albert Einstein? William Bruce Cameron? Hilliard Jason? Stephen Ross? Lord Platt? George Pickering?

Quote Investigator: QI has updated the entry about a popular quotation attributed to Einstein. The saying combines two distinct but related phrases:

Not everything that can be counted counts.

Not everything that counts can be counted.

The entry now presents earlier evidence concerning these phrases. In addition, citations from medical journals point to a new contender for authorship of the adage named Stephen Ross. Here is a link to the updated article.

The Only Time an Aircraft Has Too Much Fuel On Board Is When It Is On Fire

Charles Kingsford-Smith? Ernest K. Gann? TWA Captain? Yachtsman? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: In the aviation world there is an axiom that avers:

The only time an aircraft has too much fuel on board is when it is on fire.

This pearl of wisdom is commonly attributed to the pioneer Australian aviator Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, but a bit of Google-diving turns up no definitive sourcing. Would the QI be motivated to have a go?

Quote Investigator: Charles Kingsford-Smith was a top aviator, and he often had to worry about whether he had an adequate supply of fuel, but QI has been unable to trace the quotation back to him.

Instead, the maxim was used by another famous pilot who was noted for writing best-sellers that became Hollywood movies. In 1974 the book “Ernest K. Gann’s Flying Circus” was published, and it contained the earliest appearance of the saying that QI has located. In the following passage the author Gann poses and answers a rhetorical question about the DC-3 airplane (boldface added) [EGFC]:

“What happens if one engine quits?”

According to my recollection most DC-3s eventually arrived at their destination if they carried enough fuel. In my private manual I firmly believed the only time there was too much fuel aboard any aircraft was if it was on fire. As for single engine emergencies, I had enough familiarity with the proper mixture of fright, sweat, and faith to remain convinced “it can’t happen to me.”

Gann worked as a pilot for American Airlines and Matson Airlines. He wrote several popular books including “The High and the Mighty,” “Island in The Sky,” and “Fate Is the Hunter.” All three of these works were made into motion pictures with major stars such as Glenn Ford and John Wayne.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Only Time an Aircraft Has Too Much Fuel On Board Is When It Is On Fire

Military Command: Send Three and Fourpence. We’re Going to a Dance

World War I? World War II? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Years ago some military orders had to be sent via a series of radio relays. Each radio operator would listen to a command and then repeat it to the next operator in a series. If you have ever played the game “broken telephone” or “Chinese whispers” you may know the result of this process. Here is an example I heard of the initial military order and the final result:

Send reinforcements. We are going to advance.

Send three and fourpence. We are going to a dance.

Can you determine if there is any truth to this anecdote?  During which war did this happen? I think this tale may have been created before radio communication was common.

Quote Investigator: There are several interrelated stories about garbled communication during military exercises. The content of the messages varies, but the tales probably share a common ancestor because the message text overlaps. For example, the transformation of the phrase “send reinforcements” into “send three and fourpence” is a common feature of several anecdotes. The earliest version found by QI was published in 1914 under the title “Altered in Transit” in the “Temperance Caterer” periodical of London. This story may reflect the wishful thinking of hungry soldiers [HSTC]:

Whilst on manoeuvres, a brigadier commanding a certain brigade stationed in Aldershot passed the word to the nearest colonel to him :—

“Enemy advancing from the left flank. Send reinforcements.”

By the time it reached the end of the right flank the message was received :—

“Enemy advancing with ham-shanks. Send three and fourpence!”

A version similar to the one given by the questioner appeared by 1916. Over time the tale spinners exercised substantial creativity, and the messages started to refer to wild Italians and pressing pants. Some versions in the United States localized the currency and spoke of cents instead of pence.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Military Command: Send Three and Fourpence. We’re Going to a Dance

Creative Minds Are Rarely Tidy

Carl Gustav Jung? John William Gardner? A Wise Man? My Friend’s Pillow? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I run a daily email quote list, and I try to do a quick Google search to see if I’ve got the correct attribution.  I came across your site and thank you for the help. Here is a stumper for you:

Creative minds are rarely tidy.

This maxim is credited to Carl Gustav Jung and several other individuals. Sometimes the attribution is Anonymous. Any ideas?

Quote Investigator: There is another common version of this saying that has been put into circulation more recently:

Creative minds are seldom tidy.

QI believes that the most likely creator of the initial maxim was John William Gardner who was once the President of the Carnegie Corporation and was the founder of the prominent advocacy organization Common Cause. He also helmed the Health, Education, and Welfare department during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

In 1964 Gardner published “Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society,” and he used the adage without crediting anyone else (boldface added) [CTJG]:

It has been said that there is a stage in the life of a society (or organization or movement) in which the innovators and creative minds flower and a stage in which the connoisseurs and critics flower. Is it true that the heights of connoisseurship are achieved on the road to decadence? It is a highly debatable point, but not to be dismissed out of hand. Creative minds are rarely tidy.

Gardner also included in his book a version of the maxim that applied to larger groupings such as organizations instead of individuals [CTJG]. Both of these variants have been cited by later authors (boldface added):

Extremes of pluralism can lead to utter confusion. But creative organizations or societies are rarely tidy. Some tolerance for inconsistencies, for profusion of purposes and strategies, and for conflict is the price of freedom and vitality.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Creative Minds Are Rarely Tidy

I Feel Sure My “Woulds” And “Shoulds,” My “Wills” and “Shalls,” Are All Wrong

Oscar Wilde? Irishmen? Australian? Scot? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent English actor and author Stephen Fry once said something about Oscar Wilde that I found fascinating:

Oscar Wilde, and there have been few greater and more complete lords of language in the past thousand years, once included with a manuscript he was delivering to his publisher, a compliments slip in which he’d scribbled the injunction, “I’ll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whichs etc.”

This remark was made during a program about language that is available on YouTube, and Fry’s claim can be heard around 1 minute and 45 seconds into the audio [SFYV] [SFLE]. However, I have yet to find any support for this assertion. Can you?

Quote Investigator: There is evidence that Oscar Wilde asked the editor of his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, to carefully examine his use of “wills” and “shalls” in the text and change them if necessary. The novel was published in 1891 by Ward, Lock, and Company after it initially appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. Coulson Kernahan who worked for the book publisher wrote a memoir that discussed his interactions with Wilde during the preparation of the manuscript [OWCK]:

When The Picture of Dorian Grey was in the press, Wilde came in to see me one morning.

“My nerves are all to pieces,” he said, “and I’m going to Paris for a change. Here are the proofs of my novel. I have read them very carefully, and I think all is correct with one exception. Like most Irishmen, I sometimes write ‘I will be there,’ when it should be ‘I shall be there,’ and so on. Would you, like a dear good fellow, mind going through the proofs, and if you see any ‘wills’ or ‘shalls’ used wrongly, put them right and then pass for press? Of course, if you should spot anything else that strikes you as wrong, I’d be infinitely obliged if you would make the correction.”

I agreed, went through proofs, made the necessary alterations, and passed for press.

The word ‘Grey’ is used in the passage above instead of the expected ‘Gray’ because Kernahan used ‘Grey’ when he specified the title of Wilde’s work. The personal recollections of Kernahan were printed in 1917 and included anecdotes about other figures, e.g., Algernon Charles Swinburne, Theodore Watts-Dunton, and Edward Whymper.

Another piece of evidence showing Wilde’s lack of assuredness in this grammatical domain is contained in a personal letter he sent to his friend Robert Ross in 1898. Wilde asked Ross to examine and correct his “woulds” and “shoulds,” and his “wills” and “shalls.” The details are presented immediately below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Feel Sure My “Woulds” And “Shoulds,” My “Wills” and “Shalls,” Are All Wrong

Yes, I Am Drunk, But You Are Ugly. Tomorrow I Will Be Sober, And You Will Still Be Ugly

Winston Churchill? W. C. Fields? Mr. Robinson? Dr. Tanner? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous anecdote featuring Winston Churchill and the British politician Bessie Braddock that might be fictional. Supposedly Braddock encountered an intoxicated Churchill, and she expressed her displeasure. The rejoinder was harsh:

“Sir, you are drunk.”
“And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Was this dialog genuine or concocted? Would you please explore this tale?

Quote Investigator: This interaction is a member of a family of anecdotes which has a very long history with different individuals in the roles. A variant tale appeared in 1863 within the “Urbana Union” newspaper of Urbana, Ohio which published the following short item. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The drunken fellow’s reply to the reprimand of a temperance lecture, delivered in some of the stupid forms of that order of men is worth remembering. “I’m drunk-but-I’ll get over that pretty soon; but you’re a fool-and you’ll never get over that.”

The barb above was aimed at a foolish person instead of an ugly person. Yet, the joke template was the same. A separate QI article centered on early tales using the word “fool” is available here.

The remainder of this article discusses tales set in 1882 and afterward including stories involving the U.K. Parliament, W.C. Fields, and Winston Churchill. The examination of the latter tale incorporates testimony from a bodyguard

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Yes, I Am Drunk, But You Are Ugly. Tomorrow I Will Be Sober, And You Will Still Be Ugly


  1. 1863 July 1, Urbana Union, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Urbana, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)

Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar

Sigmund Freud? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was famous for interpreting symbols with special emphasis on the imagery in dreams. In photos he was often shown smoking a cigar, and that is why I always found the following quotation attributed to him very amusing:

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Did Freud really say this, or was it made up by a prankster?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this saying that QI has located appeared in a footnote in the medical journal “Psychiatry” in 1950. In an article titled “The Place of Action in Personality Change” the author Allen Wheelis discussed the importance of considering both the conscious and the unconscious aims of an action. He stated that sometimes the conscious aims were largely a cover for the unconscious aims, but he cautioned in a footnote that the analyst should not always assume that is true [SFAW]:

This is still an occupational hazard of psychoanalysis—thirty years after Freud’s famous remark that “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar.”

Based on the “thirty years” time span indicated by Wheelis the comment by Freud would have been made in 1920. Yet, no evidence for an earlier statement has been uncovered to date. Freud lived from 1856 to 1939. This lack of documentation is particularly odd because of the assertion that the saying was “famous” in 1950. The word order differs slightly from the most popular modern version.

In 2001 Alan C. Elms, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, published an article about three well-known sayings attributed to the renowned psychoanalyst: “Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Most Famous ‘Quotations’ and Their Actual Sources.” Elms reported on an extensive investigation of the cigar quip, and he argued that it was almost certainly apocryphal [SFAE]:

In this case, however, not only do we lack any written record of Freud as the direct source, but also there are many reasons to conclude that Freud never said it or anything like it.

Elms also asked a German colleague, Eva Schepeler, if she had seen a German version of the saying:

But despite her wide reading of psychoanalytic and popular literature in her native language, she does not recall ever having seen the quotation printed in a German publication.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar

The Market Can Remain Irrational Longer Than You Can Remain Solvent

John Maynard Keynes? A. Gary Shilling? Harold R. Evensky? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The gyrations of financial markets can be startling. I am reminded of the following words of wisdom attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes:

The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.

Supposedly Keynes said this after he performed a series of highly leveraged trades, and he was humbled by the market. Yet, I have become skeptical of the attribution because the great economist died in 1946, and the earliest evidence I have seen appeared decades after the 1940s. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1986 “The Advertiser” newspaper of Montgomery, Alabama reported on a presentation given by an influential financial advisor. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

A. Gary Shilling, twice named Wall Street’s top economist in a poll conducted by Institutional Investor magazine, told more than 100 guests in an AmSouth Bank meeting room that the investment situation has completely reversed itself . . .

He also warned that “markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.”

The next evidence for this saying appeared in a column by A. Gary Shilling in Forbes magazine in February 1993. Keynes was not mentioned when the aphorism was employed by Shilling: 2

Above all, in 1993 remember this: Markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.

The journalist Jason Zweig was working at Forbes in 1993, and he believes that he heard the expression “numerous times” before Shilling’s column appeared. He thinks the phrase was in use by the late 1980s. 3 So Shilling may not be the originator though his name is connected to the earliest and strongest written evidence.

Another remark that has been credited to Keynes for decades may have influenced the attribution of this statement:

There is nothing so disastrous as a rational investment policy in an irrational world.

There is a conceptual overlap between these two quotations, and they share the focal word “irrational.” The reassignment of the statement from Shillings to Keynes may have been facilitated by the existence of this earlier saying. This link leads to the previous QI article exploring this alternative comment.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Market Can Remain Irrational Longer Than You Can Remain Solvent


  1. 1986 December 3, The Advertiser (The Montgomery Advertiser), Economist Advises Change In Investment Strategy by Coke Ellington (Advertiser Business Editor), Quote Page 4B, Column 3, Montgomery, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1993 February 15, Forbes, Scoreboard by A. Gary Shilling, Page 236, Volume 151, Issue 4, Forbes Inc., New York. (ProQuest)
  3. Personal communication from Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal to Garson O’Toole. Email dated August 15, 2011.