The Perils of Internet Information

We all know that Bogart never said, “Play it again, Sam.” That mangled quote, which Woody Allen famously used in his stage play (and later movie) came from Casablanca,where Bogart’s character actually has this exchange with Dooley Wilson (as Sam):
Rick: You know what I want to hear.

Sam: No, I don’t.

Rick: You played it for her, you can play it for me!

Sam: Well, I don’t think I can remember––

Rick: If she can stand it, I can! Play it!
Recently, I’ve seen another bastardized quotation zapping around the internet. It’s a quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway. As a Hemingway-phile, I was quite interested. The quote goes like this: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
I was immediately suspicious. Something was rotten in the state of Bartlett, for it was the great sports writer Red Smith who said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and just open a vein.” (There are some variations on this, but the source is clear. You can read more here.)
This quote, in fact, became the basis of a book on writing, Just Open a Vein by William Brohaugh (Writer’s Digest Books, 1987). The Red Smith quote, with attribution, was printed right on the cover.

So how did these words get into Ernest Hemingway’s mouth, and thence to the wide world of the internet?
A TV writer did it, that’s how! As I investigated this further I came across an EW article from May 28, 2012, by Ken Tucker. It was a review of an HBO movie about Hemingway and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. Tucker writes:
There’s a lot of dialogue that sounds as studied as Hemingway must have intended it to sound as he declaimed it (“Let me tell you about writers — the best ones are all liars”) and stuff that’s almost certainly cobbled together from various sources. (I was particularly amused when a negative review of the movie today in The New York Times made a point of ridiculing one Hemingway line — “There’s nothing to writing, Gellhorn — all you do is sit down to your typewriter and bleed” — but failed to realize it most likely derived from a New York Times sportswriter Red Smith’s wry dictum, “Writing it easy; all you have to do is open a vein and bleed.”)
So there you have it. It seemed like a good line to give to Hemingway in a biopic. But there’s another problem with having him say this (besides the fact that he never said it). The problem is he never would have said it!
Because Hemingway drafted in longhand, and he drafted standing up! He stood because of injuries sustained during his service in World War I. It was easier on him to be on his feet.
He usually only got to a max of 500 words in a single day, because he was famously trying to write “one true sentence” followed by another, and so on. (NOTE: There’s a famous author photo of Hemingway at a typewriter for the back cover of For Whom the Bell Tolls. But this was a staged photo to emphasize the Hemingway field reporter mythos).
So let’s be clear, when doing the hard work (the “bleeding”) of a first draft, Hemingway:
Did not sit.
Did not use a typewriter.
As his grandson, Sean Hemingway, once explained: “Hemingway wrote his first drafts in longhand, and you do not have to be a handwriting analyst from the FBI to appreciate his bold, fluid penmanship. Despite the author’s own comments in the book about the difficulty of the writing process and the need for revisions, many of his first drafts are remarkably clean, poignant testaments to his continued abilities as a writer later in life.”
And by the way, Hemingway never employed a secretary named Sam. Thus, he never, ever said, “Type it again, Sam.”
So here’s one instance where a reliance on what’s floating around the internet becomes a virus of error.
The irony, of course, is that I used the internet to do the research to get to the bottom of this. But this is the age we live in!
So what erroneous information have you come across in your internet surfing? What checks and balances do you use in your own research?  

16 thoughts on “The Perils of Internet Information

  1. My protagonist went on a long rant in Too Hard to Handle, debunking the urban legend that it’s possible to kill someone instantly by smashing their nose with the heel of your hand, thereby driving fragments of bone into their brain (it’s not; the skull’s in the way). I edited it from six long sentences down to one in the final draft – it was the last thing to go, but “kill your darlings,” as they say. But I kept it in.

  2. John: Oh my gosh, I’ve read lots of books where people kill other people by decking their nose like that! (I think Ender’s Game made a big deal of it, for one thing.) That’s not really possible?

    Wow, you learn something new every day. Maybe I need to actually do more research. 😀

  3. I come across heaps of mangled quotes from writers on writing, but a pet peeve is the quoting of characters as if it was something the author had said. I saw an instance of this last year when a reputable source quoted “Jane Austen” when actually they were quoting a minor character she spends much of the book ridiculing. (I’d just re-read the book or I wouldn’t have known.)

    All this happened over Twitter, and now, because the internet has eaten my brain, I can’t remember which book it was, which character, or the source. Oh, dear!

    Guys, I would still love to subscribe to Killzone by email, instead of having to remember to check posts every other day (even though perhaps a little memory work isn’t so bad for me.) I think there is a button you can add for “Subscribe by email” on blogger…?

  4. Good morning, Jim. Great post. I’ve learned over the years to double & triple check any factoid worth including in my books. I may start with the Internet, but usually look for an authoritative book reference AND get input from a real expert, folks willing to share their technical expertise. Firsthand knowledge is usually the best, but I’ve always cross checked the facts too.

    And I’ve had to make decisions on the facts vs what might work best in fiction. Readers don’t want to read about DNA tests that take weeks to get. You sometimes have to balance facts with generally accepted perceptions to make your story flow or ring true.

  5. I think I’ve used that Hemingway “quote” before and I even read A Moveable Feast, a likely source for E.H. quotes. Point well taken about researching before qoting or applying in our works. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some bleeding to do…

  6. Ah, the miraculous turnaround time on crime scene analysis. 😎 Or the fact that the character DIDN’T have to sit for 9 hours in the ER before being seen. Love those.

    Maybe I still haven’t learned to utilize the internet to its potential, but I find for writing historical fiction I still use the internet very little for research. At most, I use is as a preliminary source for finding books on research topics I need to know about. The only exception I can think of is Cornell University’s “Making of America” project which has tons of war reports downloaded from the Civil War.

    But mostly I still rely on books and journals. Guess that’s why it takes me 8 million years to finish one book.

  7. pbs just ran a piece on hemingway’s life in cuba that was very interesting. in his library, he had books with notes that he would scribble in the sidelines to preserve thoughts for future use.
    in his youth, he summered at walloon lake in northern michigan, close to lake michigan where i grew up. according to local folklore, he watered in quite of a few holes in the area. and therefore is claimed by many as their ‘favorite son’. but i do think it is cool to picture him loving summers, opie style, in the lovliest part of the world.

  8. I do most of my research on the Internet, and do not quote unless the author published it.

    Now I am confused about Hemingway’s writing tools.

    A Moveable Feast is on of my favorite books, but I have not read it in a few years. I was under the impression that since Hadley Richardson gave her husband Ernest Hemingway a Corona typewriter on his 22nd birthday, he used it to type his manuscripts. I learned about the Corona in the novel, the Paris Wife. (As A side note: After reading ¾ of the novel, I lost patience. In my opinion, the book’s focus is on Hemingway’s egocentricity, not his elusive Paris wife.)

    Anyway, here is a link to an article on Hemingway’s Corona .

  9. John Perich: I’ve often wondered about the effectiveness of that technique. The heel of hand to nose technique was taught in my hand-to-hand combat training in the Army fifty years ago. Many years later, I read somewhere that it was ineffective. Fortunately, I never got a chance to find out.

    Another alleged Hemingway quote that can be applied to internet searches. “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof BS detector.”

  10. Hi Jordan, (sorry to hijack comments) but the subscribe are below the book slideshow doesn’t allow me to subscribe by email, only puts KZ onto some gmail homepage which I never visit. From past experience, there should be a way to add a simple “subscribe by email” option. Subscribers, please feel free to correct me if you’ve found a different way to receive KZ in your inbox.

  11. Strange. I don’t think I’d ever heard either of these quotes before. I think an even better version is the one I’m familiar with by Gene Fowler, “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

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