One model of the process of writing is that you just take what’s in our head and put into written words. The process is how Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the writing of his famous poem “Kubla Khan” (“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure dome decree …”). In Coleridge’s telling, he was reading a book that mentioned Kubla Khan and dropped off to sleep (probably under the influence of opium) and woke up with the poem fully formed in his mind. He started writing it down, frantically, until he was interrupted by a visitor and the rest of the poem vanished from his mind.
I’ve known writers who have the essay almost fully formed in their mind, and it just pours out on to the page. It’s happened for me a few times. But most writing for me, and I suspect for others, starts from a place of less clarity. There’s an idea, to be sure, and some support for the idea. But as you try to put the ideas into concrete words, you become aware of a lack of precision in what you are saying, of a failure to capture what you really mean to say, of holes and inconsistencies in the argument, of places where the argument is not persuasive or connected or fluent. I sometimes find this hard to convey to students: Writing isn’t (usually) about transcribing thoughts, but instead is intertwined with a process of developing insights that are more accurate and complete.
The great author Flannery O’Connor once wrote in a note to her agent: “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.”
(The letter was written to her literary agent on January 21, 21, 1948, while she was in the process of writing Wise Blood. It’s reprinted on p. 5 in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O\’Connor.)
But O’Connor’s comment raises an obvious question. She wrote “like the old lady.” Who is “the old lady?”
Her reference seems to trade back to a comment from E.M. Forster in his 1927 book “Aspects of the Novel,” (1927). Forster is discussing a 1925 novel by Andre Gide called Les Faux-monnayeurs, or The Counterfeiters. Here’s the passage from p. 151 of Forster’s book.
“Another distinguished critic has agreed with Gide – that old lady in the anecdote who has accused her nieces of being illogical. For some time she could not be brought to understand what logic was, and when she grasped its true nature she was not so much angry as contemptuous. “Logic! Good gracious! What rubbish!” she exclaimed. “How can I tell you what I think till I see what I say?” Her nieces, educated young women, thought that she was passée; she was really more up-to date than they were.”
Although the phrasing of this idea by Gide, Forster, and O’Connor is especially pithy, the idea that you need to write in order to find out what you really think has come up before. For example, there’s a throwaway line in the 1852 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Henry Esmond: “[T]here are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write …”
Other than the Gide/Forster/O’Connor version of this insight, my favorite version is from the Montaigne’s essay “On the Education of Children,” written around 1579-1580.
“I hear some making excuses for not being able to express themselves, and pretending to have their heads full of many fine things, but to be unable to bring them out for lack of eloquence. That is all bluff. Do you know what I think these things are? They are shadows that come to them of some shapeless conceptions, which they cannot untangle and clear up within, and consequently cannot set forth without: they do not understand themselves yet. And just watch them stammer on the point of giving birth; you will conclude that they are laboring not for delivery, but for conception, and that they are only trying to lick into shape this unfinished matter.”
(The translation of the quotation is from “The Complete Works of Montaigne: Essays, Journal, Letters,” as translated by Donald M. Frame, Hamish Hamilton; London, p. 125).