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: The full version of this article is available on the Medium website which is available by clicking here. This article provides an overview.

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)

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?

Dear 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]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 … Continue reading

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

References

References
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] 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)

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]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 … Continue reading

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

References

References
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)
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