Sorry — If I Had Any Advice To Give I’d Take It Myself

John Steinbeck? Harper Lee? Rod Serling? Apocryphal?

writer09Dear Quote Investigator: Literary folklore asserts that John Steinbeck, the Nobel prize-winning author, was once asked to share a nugget of wisdom for aspiring authors, and he replied humorously and candidly that he did not really have any advice. In fact, if he had some good advice he would use it himself. True or untrue?

Quote Investigator: The magazine “Writer’s Digest” posed the following question to several high-profile authors and editors. The desired response was supposed to be restricted to one-sentence:

What advice would you offer a person who aspires to a writing career?

The replies were published in a cover story dated September 1961. The following three items appeared in the issue. Steinbeck’s remark was frank, but not particularly useful. Boldface added: 1

I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career, that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.
Harper Lee

Sorry — If I had any advice to give I’d take it myself.
John Steinbeck

The new writer should observe, listen, look . . . and then write. Nothing begets better writing than the simple process of writing.
Rod Serling

The magazine committed a gaffe in its description of Harper Lee when it credited her with writing “To Kill a Hummingbird” instead of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

In 2012 the website of “Writer’s Digest” published a series of articles that explored the archives of the long-lived periodical. The advice from Steinbeck was reprinted when most of the 1961 article was placed on the website. 2

In conclusion, in 1961 Steinbeck did state that he was unable to provide enlightening guidance to new writers.

Image Notes: Picture of a person typing on a laptop computer from picjumbo at Pixabay. Portrait of John Steinbeck from the Nobel Foundation; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Onorio Catenacci whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1961 September, Writer’s Digest, If You Want to Be a Writer, (Advice from Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, and Rod Serling), Start Page 22, Quote Page 24, F & W Publishing Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. Website: Writer’s Digest, Article title: What’s the single best piece of writing advice? Harper Lee, John Steinbeck and Carl Sandburg weigh in, Article author: Zachary Petit, Date on website: April 27, 2012, Website description: Resource for beginning and established writers. (Accessed writersdigest.com on April 19, 2016) link

You’ll Worry Less About What People Think of You When You Realize How Seldom They Do

David Foster Wallace? Olin Miller? Lee Traveler? Ethel Barrett? Mark Twain? John Steinbeck? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: An astute quotation about insecurity is often attributed to the novelist and teacher David Foster Wallace:

You’ll worry less about what people think about you when you realize how seldom they do.

Versions of this statement have also been credited to famous figures such as Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt, but I have not yet seen a precise citation for anyone. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: David Foster Wallace did express this idea using a different phrasing in his 1996 novel “Infinite Jest”, and the details are given further below.

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in December 1936. The words were credited to a jokesmith named Olin Miller. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1

You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do.

The second earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the widely syndicated newspaper column of Walter Winchell in January 1937. 2 The ellipsis was present in the original text of the following: 3

Olin Miller’s thought should comfort the victims of self-pity, etc. . . . “You probably,” he submits, “wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do!”

QI believes that Olin Miller was the most likely originator of this remark. Other individuals such as David Foster Wallace and Ethel Barrett employed the saying after it was already in circulation. The phrasing has varied as the quotation has evolved over the decades. The linkages to Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt appear to be spurious.

Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located the key Winchell citation above and other valuable citations. 4

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You’ll Worry Less About What People Think of You When You Realize How Seldom They Do

Notes:

  1. 1936 December 19, Reno Evening Gazette, Olin Miller’s Comment, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Reno, Nevada. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1937 January 7, Logansport Pharos-Tribune, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Logansport, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1937 January 8, The Evansville Courier (Evansville Courier and Press), On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Evansville, Indiana. (GenealogyBank)
  4. Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “You wouldn’t worry about what people may think of you if you could know how seldom they do”, Date on website: September 01, 2013, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik.com on September 9, 2014) link