Writing Is the Art of Applying the Seat of the Pants to the Seat of the Chair

Sinclair Lewis? Mary Heaton Vorse? Felicia Gizycka? Robert Benchley? Douglas Fairbanks Jr.? Marianne Gingher? Stevie Cameron? Andrew Hudgins? Nora Roberts? Stephen King? Oliver Stone? Anonymous?

vorse11Dear Quote Investigator: An astonishingly simple stratagem has been recommended to anyone who wishes to become a famous author, playwright, screenwriter, or composer. The secret to success and productivity is to:

Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

The expression of this thought has evolved, and in modern times blunt phrasing is often employed:

Keep your butt in the chair.
Put your ass on the chair.

In other words, diligence, tenacity, and time are the required ingredients for effective composition. The admonition above has been attributed to a wide variety of well-known scribblers and artists, e.g., Sinclair Lewis, Nora Roberts, Robert Benchley, Stephen King, and Oliver Stone. Would you please put your butt in the chair and write something edifying on this topic?

Quote Investigator: The writer and activist Mary Heaton Vorse gave this advice to a young and impressionable Sinclair Lewis in 1911 according to Lewis who followed the counsel and later received a Nobel Prize in Literature. Lewis reported the words of Vorse in an article titled “Breaking into Print” which was published in “The Colophon: A Quarterly for Bookmen” in 1937. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

And as the recipe for writing, all writing, I remember no high-flown counsel but always and only Mary Heaton Vorse’s jibe, delivered to a bunch of young and mostly incompetent hopefuls back in 1911: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Lewis spent parts of 1911 and 1912 under the tutelage of Vorse, and she once hid his pants and shoes while locking him in his room to emphatically encourage the novice scribe. A detailed citation is given further below.

This piece of writing advice appeared in print before the 1937 article by Lewis, but QI thinks that the 1911 date given by him was probably accurate. Hence, based on current evidence Mary Heaton Vorse should be credited with the adage above.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Writing Is the Art of Applying the Seat of the Pants to the Seat of the Chair

Notes:

  1. 1937 Winter, The Colophon: A Quarterly for Bookmen, New Series, Volume 2, Number 2, Breaking Into Print by Sinclair Lewis, Start Page 217, Quote Page 221, Published by Pynson Printers, Inc., New York. (Internal publication note stated that the issue was released in February; the New York Times article that reprinted part of text stated that the issue was released March 22, 1937)(Verified with scans from Carnegie Mellon, Posner Center Collection)

They Haven’t Done Anything to My Book. It’s Right There on the Shelf

Raymond Chandler? James M. Cain? Alan Moore? William S. Burroughs? Larry Niven? Stephen King? Elmore Leonard? William Faulkner? Owen Sheers?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard the following anecdote told about Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Stephen King, and Elmore Leonard. A journalist once visited the house of a popular author who had sold the movie rights to several of his novels to Hollywood. The quality of the resultant movies had been lamented by critics. The reporter attempted to commiserate with the writer by saying that Hollywood had ruined his books, but the author led the visitor into his study and pointed to a bookshelf:

They haven’t done anything to my books. They’re still right there on the shelf. They’re fine.

Is this story accurate? Who were the participants?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence for this tale known to QI was published in the New York Times Book Review in March 1969. The influential cultural critic John Leonard visited James M. Cain at his home in Hyattsville, Maryland. Cain had written several best-selling books in the 1930s and 1940s including: “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Mildred Pierce”, and “Double Indemnity”. These works were transformed into movies of variable quality. Leonard reported on the remarks of Cain: 1

All the early novels were made into movies. (Hollywood made $12-million from Cain; Cain made $100,000.) He has seen only two of the movies made from his books. “There are some foods some people just don’t like. I just don’t like movies. People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.”

The citation above was located by top researcher Bill Mullins. In 1974 a book titled “Graham Greene: The Films of His Fiction” referenced the comments of Cain. The phrasing presented matched the version in the New York Times: 2

The American novelist James M. Cain once remarked that he had rarely gone to see the screen version of one of his novels. “People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading They Haven’t Done Anything to My Book. It’s Right There on the Shelf

Notes:

  1. 1969 March 2, New York Times, Section: Book Review, The Wish of James M. Cain by John Leonard, Quote Page BR2, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1974, Graham Greene: The Films of His Fiction by Gene D. Phillips, Series: Studies in Culture & Communication, Chapter 2, Quote Page 14, Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York. (Verified on paper)