A Disordered Desk Is a Sign of Genius

Leo Tolstoy? Edwin H. Stuart? Elinor Glyn? Henry Traphagen? Art Buchwald? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: While I am working hard on a complex project my desk usually becomes messy, but I take comfort in the following sayings:

  • A cluttered desk is the mark of a genius.
  • A messy desk is the sign of a creative mind.
  • An untidy desk is a sign of brilliance.

Would you please explore the history of this modern adage?

Quote Investigator: A strong match appeared in the journal “Typo Graphic” in 1947. The editor Edwin H. Stuart sent a questionnaire to his readers, and he was disappointed with the low response rate. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

When you did not reply we assumed that you may have: Moved to another city. …

Or, that you’re one of those geniuses who have a piled-up desk and you threw the card in the pile and it got lost.

Tolstoi said that a disordered desk was a sign of genius and we see lots of littered desks in our rambles around Pittsburgh.

Stuart used the alternative spelling “Tolstoi” while crediting Leo Tolstoy. QI has not yet found support for this ascription; however, QI has not attempted the difficult task of searching for a Russian instance.

This website also has articles about two related expressions: “A disordered desk is an evidence of a disordered brain” and “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, we can’t help wondering what an empty desk indicates”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Disordered Desk Is a Sign of Genius


  1. 1947 December, Typo Graphic, Page Title: Well Thanks, Brother, Article: Don’t Blame Us, Quote Page 36, Column 2, Publisher Edwin H. Stuart, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Library of University of Minnesota, Twin Cities)

I Can’t Understand How Anyone Can Write Without Rewriting Everything Over and Over Again

Leo Tolstoy? A. B. Goldenveizer? Apocryphal?

tolstoy10Dear Quote Investigator: November is National Novel Writing Month; a participant is supposed to commit to writing 50,000 words during the 30 days of the month. Sustaining that pace would be difficult for me because I am irresistibly drawn to rewriting. The brilliant Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once said something about feeling compelled to rewrite his own published words whenever he saw them. Are you familiar with this quotation? Would you please trace it?

Quote Investigator: In 1922 the diary of a Russian Music Professor named Aleksandr Borisovich Goldenveizer was published in Moscow. Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy and Goldenveizer had been friends for nearly 15 years, and in the pages of the diary Tolstoy was referred to with the initials L. N. In 1923 selections from the diary were translated into English and then published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Goldenveizer recorded a remark made by Tolstoy about his compulsion to rewrite. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Yesterday L. N. spoke of the process of creative work:
“I can’t understand how any one can write without rewriting everything over and over again. I scarcely ever re-read my published writings, but if by chance I come across a page, it always strikes me: All this must be rewritten; this is how I should have written it.

Tolstoy also made clear to Goldenveizer that he did not trust the judgement of his audience about the completeness of his work:

“I am always interested to trace the moment, which comes quite early, when the public is satisfied; and the artist thinks: They say it is good; but it is just at this point that the real work begins!”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Can’t Understand How Anyone Can Write Without Rewriting Everything Over and Over Again


  1. 1923, Talks with Tolstoi by A. B. Goldenveizer (Aleksandr Borisovich Goldenveizer), Translated by S. S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf, Chapter: 1899, Quote Page 26, Published by Leonard & Virginia Woolf at The Hogarth Press, Richmond, England. (Verified with scans)