Information Sheet #87

February 21, 1995


Earlier this fall Al Fisher and I traded several e-mail messages, sharing quotations on the subject of writing as an act of discovery. The exchange began with Al sending me a quote by E.M. Forster on this curious phenomenon of writers being unable to know what they are going to say until after they start writing. Here are Forster's words:

"How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"--E.M. Forster

Many authors working in a wide range of genres have made a similar point, emphasizing the need to be "surprised" when writing. Here are a few more quotes on this topic, beginning with a famous Coe "grad":

"I acknowledge that I do not know exactly what I am going to say or exactly how I'm going to say it."--William F. Buckley

"When you're writing, you're trying to find out something which you don't know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don't want to know, what you don't want to find out."--James Baldwin

"I don't really know what I'm going to say. In the end it's a process of discovery, rather than putting something in that I know beforehand."--Saul Bellow

"I begin a story with an urge to write the story, but I don't know quite where it's going. Usually I'll find out what I want to say in the act of saying it."--Raymond Carver

"I recall a curious quotation from, I think, Roger Fry: A precocious child who was talented at drawing explained his method of composition by saying, 'First I think and then I draw a line around my think.' In the case of my stories it is the exact opposite: the verbal line that will draw them is started without any prior 'think.'"--Julio Cortazar

"Good writing is a kind of skating which carries off the performer where he would not go." --Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Follow the accident, fear the fixed plan--that is the rule."--John Fowles

"No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn't know I knew."--Garrison Keillor

"To be a writer does not mean to present a truth, it means to discover a truth."--Milan Kundera

"We do not write in order to be understood, we write in order to understand."--C. Day Lewis

"To me, writing a book is a great voyage of discovery; what attracts me to a subject in part is what I don't know about it, what I can learn from it."--David McCullouch

"There is in writing the constant joy of sudden discovery."--H.L. Mencken

"I think at the typewriter."--Arthur Miller

"The language leads, and we continue to follow where it leads."--Wright Morris

"I write out of ignorance. I write about the things I don't have any resolutions for, and when I'm finished, I think I know a little bit more about it. I don't write out of what I know. It's what I don't know that stimulates me. I merely know enough to get started."--Toni Morrison

"Good writing is full of surprises and novelties; moving in a direction you don't expect."--Iris Murdoch

"We do not write what we know; we write what we want to find out."--Wallace Stegner

"There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write."--William Makepeace Thackeray

"The purpose of brainstorming is to stimulate creative thought... When you come up with an idea or phrase that isn't quite right, resist the temptation to throw it out and start again. Just write it down.... Don't try to write 'polished prose.'...Don't stop to perfect spelling, grammar, or even phrasing. Keep working at the level of ideas...keep your eye on the question or the problem you have set for yourself. Brainstorming is not free association; it is a goal-directed effort to discover ideas relevant to a problem."--Linda Flower

"[Writing is] like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."--E.L. Doctorow

"The pen leads the mind."--Paul Valery

As you sift through these quotes, it might be worthwhile to consider if there aren't some important implications here concerning what we expect in initial drafts of students papers. Writers, including student writers, often need a chance to write for purposes of exploration, not knowing where they are going until they get there. Giving students permission to use their writing for an initial messiness may result in writing more with substance.

I'll end this catalog with my most recent addition, picked up last summer while attending a writer's workshop taught by one of my favorite authors, Gretel Ehrlich. During the critique of a student's essay, Ehrlich commented, "You write what you write and later find out what it is."

--Bob Marrs

Here are a few other items on writing academia that have ended up in my Word Shop file. The first item was recently discovered by Marty St. Clair while driving along the information highway.

Why God Would Never Receive Tenure:

1. He had only one major publication.

2. It wasn't published in a refereed journal.

3. Some even doubt that he wrote it himself.

4. It may be true he created the world, but what has he done since then?

5. His cooperative efforts have been limited.

6. The scientific community has had a hard time reproducing his results.

7. He never applied to the Ethics board for permission to use human subjects.

8. When one experiment went awry he never tried to cover it up by drowning his subjects.

9. When subjects didn't behave as expected, he deleted them from the sample.

10. He rarely came to class, just told students to read the book.

11. Some say he had his son teach the class.

12. He expelled his first two students.

13. Although there were only ten requirements, most students failed his tests.

14. He office hours were infrequent and usually held on a mountain top.

Thanks to Joanne Pusack for sending me this poem written by a student in the ESL program. I've had this on my office wall for several years and have found it an invaluable reminder when dealings with students' "dreamseeds."

Feelings about being a peer reviewing

Written by an INFP


First draft

Full of mistakes

Lacking much



Scared, we need

A care-full touch

*INFP - Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceptive personality type according to the Myers Briggs Type Inventory

"[Writing] is like getting on a train to Louisiana. All you know at the moment is that you're getting on the train, and you're going to Louisiana. But you don't know who you're going to sit behind, or in front of, or beside; you don't know what the weather is going to be when you pass through certain areas of the country; you don't know what's going to happen; you don't know all these things, but you know you're going to Louisiana."--Ernest Gaines

"I think writing is an act of healing. it's an exorcism of sorts, to put into words and symbols this almost inexpressible anguish. That is why I started, to try and alleviate the despair. Writing shapes experience for me; it isn't ever the experience that gives any shape to the prose. It's by looking for the words and formulating sentences that you give some kind of order to it that raw experience never has--and in the process, I guess, reduce it to a manageable emotion."--Doris Grumbach

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