Tag Archives: Leo Tolstoy

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.

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Notes:

  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.

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Notes:

  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)

There Are Only Two Plots: (1) A Person Goes on a Journey (2) A Stranger Comes to Town

Fyodor Dostoyevsky? Leo Tolstoy? Mary Morris? John Gardner? David Long? Ernest Hemingway? Deepak Chopra?

jounrney09Dear Quote Investigator: A provocative remark about stories has been attributed to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, John Gardner, and others:

There are only two plots in all of literature:
1) A person goes on a journey.
2) A stranger comes to town.

Are you willing to follow plot number one and embark on a journey to discover the origin of this adage?

Quote Investigator: Writer and educator John Gardner died tragically at age 49 in a motorcycle accident in 1982. His influential work of tutelage “The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers” was released posthumously in 1984. Gardner included exercises “for the development of technique”, and the following was listed fifth. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Write the opening of a novel using the authorial-omniscient voice, making the authorial omniscience clear by going into the thoughts of one or more characters after establishing the voice. As subject, use either a trip or the arrival of a stranger (some disruption of order—the usual novel beginning).

The exercise above did not assert that the two possibilities referenced exhausted all plot choices. Also, the statement was only about the beginning of a novel. Nevertheless, these words were the earliest pertinent published evidence known to QI.

In September 1986 “Coda: Poets & Writers Newsletter” published an article by writer David Long titled “Notes from a Contest Judge”. The excerpt below included the first articulation located by QI of the eccentric claim that collapsed all plots to two archetypes: 2

John Gardner once observed that there are only two plots: A stranger rides into town, and A man goes on a journey. I think he’s right: there’s no such thing as a new plot, and I don’t expect to find one in the stack of manuscripts. But I do crave an original telling—one of our shared stories done again, ablaze with new detail.

The phrasing used to express the assertion has varied considerably suggesting that later propagators were not referencing a fixed textual source.

A citation in 1998 claimed that Gardner made a remark similar to the one under investigation circa 1978 during a “Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference”. Yet, memories of events twenty years in the past are often malleable. Details are presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1984, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner, Section: Exercises, Quote Page 203, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. Year: 1986 September/October, Periodical: Coda: Poets & Writers Newsletter, Volume 14, Number 1, Article: Notes from a Contest Judge, Article Author: David Long, Article Subsection Number: 7, Start Page 20, Quote Page 21, Publisher: Poets & Writers, Inc, New York. (Verified with scans thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)