Quote Origin: I Do Not Know What I Think Until I Read What I’m Writing
Flannery O’Connor? Graham Wallas? E. M. Foster? 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
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?² (Attributed to unnamed little girl by educator Graham Wallas)²
1927: How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?³ (Attributed to an unnamed old lady by novelist E. M. Forster)
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1959 May 7: I have been writing down my thoughts about things — not for publication, but to find out what I’m thinking about.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)
Below are detailed citations in chronological order.
In 1949 “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” included an entry for a thematically related remark. QI has not yet found any substantive support for the listed attribution:⁴
WALPOLE, Horace, 1717–1797, English author, letter writer, and antiquarian.
I never understand anything until I have written about it.
In 1959 the Associated Press published a piece about actress Inger Stevens during which she employed a version of the saying:⁵
“But work isn’t everything. I want to take some courses at UCLA if I stay here. I do some painting, and I model with clay. Also, I have been writing down my thoughts about things — not for publication, but to find out what I’m thinking about.”
In 1963 the book “Celebrity Register: An Irreverent Compendium of American Quotable Notables” included an entry about journalist August Heckscher who employed the saying:⁶
He has been chief editorial writer for the New York Herald Tribune (leaving because “I got to the point where I did not really know what I thought until I read what I had written the next day”).
In January 1969 Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson published a column in “Newsweek” magazine forecasting business and financial trends for the coming year. Samuelson discussed his motivation for making predictions:⁷
Most important is the masochistic desire to make oneself climb out on a limb. How do I know what I really think until I read what my pen is writing?
In November 1976 the UPI news service published a piece about actress and memoirist Shirley MacLaine. She discussed her motivation for writing:⁸
“Writing a book is easier than not writing it, if you know what I mean,” she said. “Half the time I write to find out what I mean.”
In December 1976 author Joan Didion published an article in “The New York Times Book Review” titled “Why I Write” containing the following passage:⁹
Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
In 1981 “The Baltimore Sun” of Maryland printed an article about novelist E. L. Doctorow who employed a variant expression:¹⁰
In fact, Mr. Doctorow has begun a new novel, but he tersely declines to discuss it.
“I can’t tell you about it because I don’t know how. You write to find out what it is that you’re writing.”
In May 1982 journalist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne used an instance while disclaiming credit:¹¹
“I think you write to find out what you think,” says Mr. Dunne, “though that’s hardly an original thought. Writers basically work by instinct — I think you have only an inchoate sense of what you’re doing.
In September 1982 author Francine du Plessix Gray published in “The New York Times Book Review” an essay titled “I Write for Revenge Against Reality”. Gray credited Flannery O’Connor with a different phrasing of the saying:¹²
Question: Why do I go on writing, seeing the continuing anguish of the act, the dissatisfaction I feel toward most results?
Flannery O’Connor said it best: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
In 1983 the periodical “Dramatics” printed a piece about playwright Edward Albee which included his answers to questions posed by high school students:¹³
“I’m not one of these playwrights who says now I must write a play about this or that, and then figures out a plot and characters for the play. The whole thing emerges in my consciousness, and I may keep it in mind for up to ten years before I write it down. To oversimplify, it could be said that I write the plays down to find out what I’m thinking about.”
In 1985 Associated Press printed an article about playwright Wendy Wasserstein which discussed her play “Isn’t It Romantic”:¹⁴
It’s a comedy that was born in anxiety. “I often write to find out what I’m thinking,” Ms. Wasserstein says. “Isn’t It Romantic” happened at a time when a girlfriend of mine got married. I was upset and couldn’t understand why.
In 1989 Professor of Business Administration Warren Bennis published the book “On Becoming a Leader”. He attributed the saying to the famous author William Faulkner who had died many years earlier in 1962:¹⁵
Faulkner said, ‘I don’t know what I think until I read what I said.’ That’s not just a joke. You learn what you think by codifying your thinking in some way.
In 1994 “True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence” by Tom Morris also attributed the saying to Faulkner, but the phrasing was different:¹⁶
William Faulkner once said, “I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it.” Well, I’ve read Faulkner and often still don’t have a clue what he thought.
In 1995 “The New Yorker” magazine published an article about the poet Virginia Hamilton Adair who employed a version of the saying:¹⁷
“I’ve always written poems,” Virginia told me. “I never stopped. I never know what I think until I read it in one of my poems.”
In 2005 the well-known horror scribe typed a compact instance:¹⁸
I write to find out what I think, and what I found out writing The Colorado Kid was that maybe — I just say maybe — it’s the beauty of the mystery that allows us to live sane as we pilot our fragile bodies through this demolition-derby world.
In conclusion, there are two closely related families of sayings:
(1) I will know what I think when I hear what I said.
(2) I will know what I think when I read what I wrote
The first family was discussed in an article which is available here. This article has focused on the second family. Flannery O’Connor stated in 1948 that she had to “write to discover what I am doing”. She also credited an anonymous “old lady” with the following viewpoint: “I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say”. The citations above indicate that the family of remarks about writing has been popular with novelists, playwrights, screenwriters, poets, and others.
Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a writing hand from “The Book of Knowledge” (1912) edited by Arthur Mee and Holland Thompson.
Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Arnold Zwicky and Mark Mandel whose remarks and inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.
 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)
 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)
 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)
 1949 Copyright, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Horace Walpole, Quote Page 210, Bramhall House, New York. (Verified with scans)
 1959 May 7, The Austin Statesman, Bob Thomas (Associated Press), Quote Page A20, Column 2, Austin, Texas. (ProQuest)
 1963, Celebrity Register: An Irreverent Compendium of American Quotable Notables, Edited by Cleveland Amory with Earl Blackwell, Profile of August Heckscher, Quote Page 282, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
 1973, The Samuelson Sampler by Paul Samuelson (Paul Anthony Samuelson), Chapter 10: A Look Back, A Look Ahead, A Look Around, Essay: The New Year, Date: January 1969, Start Page 167, Quote Page 168, Thomas Horton and Company, Glen Ridge, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
 1976 November 18, The Daily Dispatch, Shirley MacLaine remains a free spirit by Vernon Scott (UPI), Quote Page 53, Column 6, Moline, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
 1976 December 5, The New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, Why I Write by Joan Didion, Start Page 2, Quote Page 2, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)
 1981 March 31, The Baltimore Sun, ‘Ragtime’ to riches: Non-writing is Doctorow’s neurosis by Randi Henderson (Sun Staff Correspondent), Start Page B1, Quote Page B4, Column 2, Baltimore, Maryland. (ProQuest)
 1982 May 3, New York Times, How John Gregory Dunne Puts Himself Into His Books by Michiko Kakutani, Quote Page C11, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)
 1982 September 12, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, I Write for Revenge Against Reality by Francine du Plessix Gray, Start Page BR3, Quote Page BR46, Column 4, New York. (Newspapers_com)
 1983 June, Dramatics, Volume 54, Issue 10, Albee on the road by Marty Curtis, Start Page 3, Quote Page 19, Column 1, The Educational Theatre Association, Cincinnati, Ohio. (ProQuest)
 1985 March 17, The Journal-News, Wendy Wasserstein — A playwright’s progress by Michael Kuchwara (AP Drama Writer), Quote Page F8, Column 1, Nyack, New York. (ProQuest)
 1989, On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis, Chapter 2: Understanding the Basics, Quote Page 48, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive)
 1994, True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence by Tom Morris PhD, Chapter 1: A Conception of What We Want, Quote Page 41, A Grosset/Putnam Book: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans)
 1995 December 25 , The New Yorker, Dancing in the Dark by Alice Quinn, Start Page 132, Quote Page 135, Column 1, Publisher Condé Nast, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)
 2005, The Colorado Kid by Stephen King, Section: Afterword, Date: January 31, 2005, Quote Page 184, Hard Case Crime: Dorchester Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans)