Years ago, I came across a peculiar phrase that changed the way I think about writing. It was something along the lines of "I don't know what I think until I write it down." I don't remember exactly where I first heard this dictum of sorts, but I've since seen it repeated again and again. And after searching for where the phrase comes from, I found that seemingly every great writer of the 20th and 21st centuries has been credited with saying something to that effect.
One of the first known writers attributed with the phrase is Flannery O'Connor, but she was actually quoting an idea from an unknown source, writing in a 1948 letter:
"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."
In 1959, Actress Inger Stevens said something a little closer to the adage as I know it:
"I have been writing down my thoughts about things — not for publication, but to find out what I'm thinking about."
Joan Didion wrote something similar in 1976:
"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking."
William Faulkner has also claimed to follow a similar methodology several times over, apparently saying something to the effect of:
"I don't know what I think until I read what I said,"
"I never know what I think about something until I read what I've written on it."
But I think horror writer Stephen King perhaps put it best, saying quite simply:
"I write to find out what I think."
So, lots of people have written, said, or paraphrased something along the lines of "I don't know what I know until I write about it." It seems like there must be something to it then, right? But what are these writers really telling us?
Contrary to some popular beliefs, most writers don't know exactly what they're going to write until they get down to the business of writing. Of course, they may have ideas, or they may have even spent weeks planning and outlining their work (arguably, a form of writing in itself). But ultimately, writing is an exploratory art form - a way of thinking out one's thoughts. And between the processes of thinking about writing and actually writing and editing, the writer's thoughts, and therefore their words, are, as author Mohsin Hamid notes, always evolving:
"In the end, what we know isn't a static commodity. It changes from being written about. Storytelling alters the storyteller. And a story is altered by being told."
In my experience, writing, be it fiction, essay, blog post, or poem, has a way of catching you off guard. For instance, you may think you know what a character is going to do and say, but then, as you write the words, they act as if on their own accord. Of course, despite the illusion, a character in a story has no real agency - it's all the writer thinking it through and reaching a discovery. Likewise, you may start writing an essay only to deviate from your point. Or you may find that when you read something back to yourself, you disagree with what you've written.
In a sense, then, writing is a way of shedding light on the fog that is the pen-bearer's logic, along with all the gaps, contradictions, and surprises found within that logic. We can observe that it is not so much a way of recording thoughts (though it is that also) but of becoming aware of what those thoughts are.
At first glance, this seems to be in contrast to another more famous and often misunderstood writing adage courtesy of Mark Twain: "Write what you know."
People often assume that to write what you know is to write about your life. But as Ursula K. Le Guin put it, what we 'know' as human beings with imagination, is often more fantastical than we realize:
"As for 'Write what you know,' I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it's a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it's my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of 'know.'"
Writing what you know isn't a demand. Instead, it's an inevitability. We can't write anything but what we know, be it our lived experiences, the films we've watched, the books we've read, the places we've been, or the places we dream up. And how do we know what we know? We write.
Perhaps a better phrase that may capture the essence of both lines of thinking might be 'write so you know.' Or, as Author Mark Nepo suggests:
"Don't write what you know. Write what you need to know."
Perhaps the thing we need to know is simply how a story might end or how a hero might overcome an obstacle. Or, perhaps what we need to know is how we're feeling, what's troubling us, what we're grateful for, or what our goals in life are. Or perhaps we aren't to know what we need, only that we might find it if we write our way towards it.