I Do Not Know What I Think Until I Read What I’m Writing

Flannery O’Connor? Graham Wallas? E. M. Forster? Inger Stevens? August Heckscher? Paul Samuelson? Shirley MacLaine? Joan Didion? E. L. Doctorow? John Gregory Dunne? Edward Albee? Wendy Wasserstein? William Faulkner? Virginia Hamilton Adair? Stephen King?

Question for Quote Investigator: The process of writing helps to clarify thoughts and ideas. For example, some novelists do not outline their plots in advance; instead, they spontaneously construct story arcs while writing. Here are two versions of a pertinent comment:

(1) I write to find out what I think.
(2) I don’t know what I think until I read what I write.

This remark has a humorous edge because thoughts are usually formulated before they are written down. This notion has been attributed to prominent short story writer and novelist Flannery O’Connor and to horror master Stephen King. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1948 Flannery O’Connor wrote a letter to her literary agent, and she included an instance of the saying. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]1979, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Edited by Sally Fitzgerald, Part I: Up North and Getting Home 1948-1952, Letter to: Literary agent Elizabeth McKee, Letter date: July 21, … Continue reading

What you say about the novel, Rinehart, advances, etc. sounds very good to me, but I must tell you how I work. I don’t have my novel outlined and I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again.

O’Connor’s mention of an “old lady” indicated that she was referencing an earlier cluster of similar remarks. Here are two of the earliest instances:

1926: How can I know what I think till I see what I say? (Attributed to unnamed little girl by educator Graham Wallas)[2]1926 Copyright, The Art of Thought by Graham Wallas (Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of London), Chapter 4: Stages of Control, Quote Page 106, Harcourt, Brace and Company, … Continue reading

1927: How can I tell what I think till I see what I say? (Attributed to an unnamed old lady by novelist E. M. Forster)[3] 1927 Copyright, Aspects Of The Novel by E. M. Forster, Chapter 5: The Plot, Quote Page 152, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)

The two quotations above were about speaking instead of writing. A separate QI article about the family of sayings centered on oral expression is available here: How Can I Know What I Think Till I See What I Say?

This article will center on sayings about written expression. Below is an overview of this family of remarks.

1948 Jul 21: I don’t have my novel outlined and I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again. (Writer Flannery O’Connor)

1959 May 7: I have been writing down my thoughts about things—not for publication, but to find out what I’m thinking about. (Actress Inger Stevens)

1963: I did not really know what I thought until I read what I had written the next day. (Attributed to Journalist August Heckscher)

1969 Jan: How do I know what I really think until I read what my pen is writing? (Economist Paul Samuelson)

1976 Nov 18: Half the time I write to find out what I mean. (Actress and Author Shirley MacLaine)

1976 Dec 5: I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking. (Writer Joan Didion)

1981 Mar 31: You write to find out what it is that you’re writing. (Novelist E. L. Doctorow)

1982 May 3: I think you write to find out what you think. (Screenwriter John Gregory Dunne)

1983 Jun: I write the plays down to find out what I’m thinking about. (Playwright Edward Albee)

1985 Mar 17: I often write to find out what I’m thinking. (Playwright Wendy Wasserstein)

1989: I don’t know what I think until I read what I said. (Attributed to William Faulkner by Warren Bennis)

1994: I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it. (Attributed to William Faulkner by Tom Morris)

1995: I never know what I think until I read it in one of my poems. (Poet Virginia Hamilton Adair)

2005: I write to find out what I think. (Horror writer Stephen King)

Additional detailed information is available in the Quote Investigator article on the Medium website which is available by clicking here.

References

References
1 1979, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Edited by Sally Fitzgerald, Part I: Up North and Getting Home 1948-1952, Letter to: Literary agent Elizabeth McKee, Letter date: July 21, 1948, Start Page 5, Quote Page 5, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York. (Verified with scans)
2 1926 Copyright, The Art of Thought by Graham Wallas (Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of London), Chapter 4: Stages of Control, Quote Page 106, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
3 1927 Copyright, Aspects Of The Novel by E. M. Forster, Chapter 5: The Plot, Quote Page 152, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)

Inspiration Is for Amateurs—The Rest of Us Just Show Up and Get To Work

Chuck Close? Stephen King? Philip Roth? Harvey Mackay? Mark Twain? Charles Schulz? Rosalyn Drexler? John Barkham? Nocona Burgess? Jill Elaine Hughes?

Dear Quote Investigator: An artist must wait patiently for inspiration to occur according to a romanticized depiction of creativity. Yet, a successful professional artist offered the following contrary viewpoint:

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.

This notion has been attributed to acclaimed photorealist painter Chuck Close, popular horror writer Stephen King, Noble Prize-winning author Philip Roth, motivational columnist Harvey Mackay, and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In April 2006 Chuck Close was interviewed by fellow artist Joe Fig. The interview appeared in the 2009 book “Inside the Painter’s Studio”. The text below consists of a question posed by Fig followed by a reply from Close. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1] 2009, Inside the Painter’s Studio, Compiled by Joe Fig, Artist: Chuck Close, Date: April 25, 2006, Quote Page 42, Princeton Architectural Press, New York. (Verified with scans)

Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?

Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will—through work—bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great “art idea.”

Interestingly, a character in a novel by Philip Roth employed a version of this saying while crediting Chuck Close. Also, Stephen King used a version while crediting Roth. Thus, the confusion about attribution is understandable. Details are presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Inspiration Is for Amateurs—The Rest of Us Just Show Up and Get To Work

References

References
1 2009, Inside the Painter’s Studio, Compiled by Joe Fig, Artist: Chuck Close, Date: April 25, 2006, Quote Page 42, Princeton Architectural Press, New York. (Verified with scans)

I Have the Heart of a Small Boy

Stephen King? Robert Bloch? Bennett Cerf? Gahan Wilson?

Dear Quote Investigator: A famous horror writer employed a comically gruesome paraprosdokian when discussing temperament. There are many phrasings for this quip. Here is one:

I have the heart of a child. I keep it in a jar on my desk.

This joke has been attributed to horror luminaries Stephen King and Robert Bloch. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Stephen King has employed this line on multiple occasions. However, when he delivered it during a speech at a library in 1983 he credited Robert Bloch.

The earliest match known to QI appeared in “Weird Tales” magazine in 1942. Bloch sent a letter stating that he was crafting new stories that included more humor to accompany the macabre. He illustrated this new direction by providing an amusing self-description. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1] 1942 November, Weird Tales, Volume 36, Number 8, Section: The Eyrie and Weird Tales Club, (Letter from Robert Bloch), Quote Page 120, Column 2, Weird Tales, New York. (Verified with scans)

As a matter of fact, I am really a very loveable person, as my friends tell me—or they would, if I had any friends. Deep down underneath it all I have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar, on my desk.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Have the Heart of a Small Boy

References

References
1 1942 November, Weird Tales, Volume 36, Number 8, Section: The Eyrie and Weird Tales Club, (Letter from Robert Bloch), Quote Page 120, Column 2, Weird Tales, New York. (Verified with scans)

Talent Is a Dreadfully Cheap Commodity, Cheaper Than Table Salt

Stephen King? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Years ago the famous horror writer Stephen King was discussing how to become a successful artist, and he employed vivid figurative language that I can still recall. He indicated that talent was as common and cheap as table salt. His bracing insight was that success required great effort combined with talent. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1981 Stephen King published his analysis of the horror genre emphasizing the years from 1950 to 1980 in the book “Stephen King’s Danse Macabre”. Within the chapter “An Annoying Autobiographical Pause” he discussed the inability of talent by itself to guarantee triumph. Boldface added to excepts by QI:[1] 1981, Stephen King’s Danse Macabre by Stephen King, Chapter 4: An Annoying Autobiographical Pause, Quote Page 92, Everest House, New York. (Verified with scans)

I think that writers are made, not born or created out of dreams or childhood trauma—that becoming a writer (or a painter, actor, director, dancer, and so on) is a direct result of conscious will. Of course there has to be some talent involved, but talent is a dreadfully cheap commodity, cheaper than table salt.

King underscored the need for sustained thought and effort:

What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work and study; a constant process of honing. Talent is a dull knife . . .

Discipline and constant work are the whetstones upon which the dull knife of talent is honed until it becomes sharp enough, hopefully, to cut through even the toughest meat and gristle.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Talent Is a Dreadfully Cheap Commodity, Cheaper Than Table Salt

References

References
1 1981, Stephen King’s Danse Macabre by Stephen King, Chapter 4: An Annoying Autobiographical Pause, Quote Page 92, Everest House, New York. (Verified with scans)