Tag Archives: Arnold Samuelson

The First Draft of Anything Is Shit

Ernest Hemingway? Arnold Samuelson? Bernard Malamud? Apocryphal?
hemingway10Dear Quote Investigator: The prose style of the famous author Ernest Hemingway was spare and direct, but to achieve that form he often worked through multiple drafts. A pungent remark about rewriting has been attributed to the Nobel Prize winner. Here are three versions:

The first draft of everything is shit.
The first draft of anything is shit.
The first draft of anything is rubbish.

What do you think? Authentic? Apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: Ernest Hemingway died in 1961, and the first published evidence of this remark known to QI appeared in the 1984 posthumous memoir “With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba” by Arnold Samuelson. In 1934 the nineteen-year-old Samuelson journeyed to Key West, Florida to meet Hemingway whose works had deeply impressed the young man. Hemingway needed a deck hand for his fishing boat, The Pilar, and Samuelson desired a literary tutor and guide. He accepted the job and worked with Hemingway for 10 months.

Samuelson created a manuscript that recorded his experiences, but it was not published during his lifetime. When he died in 1981 his sister found the document and edited it for publication which occurred in 1984. The following advice was given by Hemingway to the aspiring writer. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.

Apparently, this was written while the guidance was still fresh in the mind of Samuelson. The accuracy depends on the correctness and probity of Samuelson and his sister.

The key citation above was identified by top researcher Barry Popik, and his discussion of this topic is available here.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1984, With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba by Arnold Samuelson, Quote Page 11, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)