How Do I Know What I Mean until I See What I Say?

My mom would often quote: How do I know what I mean until I see what I say? when we talked about writing around the dinner table. Which we did sometimes, oddball family that we were. That expression immediately came to mind when the lovely Mr. Fandango suggested a blog One-Word Challenge using the word “mean.” I take heart that I did not think about someone performing acts of cruelty, although I cringe slightly that I also didn’t consider anything statistical which, after all, is right up on my blog masthead.

But that’s writing, isn’t it? We don’t really control it.

Writers Meander

It turns out E. M. Forster is the source of the original saying, and that he was misquoted. He said “think,” not “mean,” which is a curious distinction.

How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?
–E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

Forster seemed to be talking about the way thought flits from topic to topic, an unpredictable hummingbird. The thoughts spill out, almost randomly, and the writer must follow and make sense of it all. I prefer my mom’s version, which puts more power into the writer’s hands. I do have something in mind, I just don’t know what it is yet, until it emerges onto the paper or springs forth onto the screen.

Actually, Aspects of the Novel appears to be public domain, so I started poking around the PDF (research always being more fun than writing). It looks quite interesting…anyway, Forster is discussing plot. His quote refers to an old lady who refuses to understand or follow “logic,” yet he quotes her to tell novelists that they should let themselves be overtaken by the plot.

…Writers should mix themselves up in their material and be rolled over and over by it; they should not try to subdue any longer, they should hope to be subdued, to be carried away… All that is prearranged is false.
–E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

Supporting Characters Don’t Always Behave

Writers typically start with an idea, definitely a beginning and maybe an ending. Or, sometimes just an ending image… I can see the movie poster…says the producer in Bowfinger. You hope to get where you planned, although usually it’s not a straight line but a Candyland-style wandering path.

Characters pop up unannounced and make themselves at home. Your hero does something stupid, and it turns into a running metaphor. Other supporting characters won’t behave and keep saying witty things that are out of character until you have to change their backstory. Someone else turns out to have a dog.

What have you done?

The Tule Fog of Writing

I’m working on a book–let’s call it about Topic X. I know where it’s going, but it seems to be taking forever to get there. Most of the paragraphs seem well-constructed, but only after the fact. I keep looking back and thinking, hey, that’s pretty good! But I have almost no idea how I got there.  As I look forward, I don’t have a good idea about what comes next–even though I have a very very clear outline.

So, it seems to me all of this writing jazz is like being in a tule fog. Tule fog is a particularly dense fog native to our Northern California Central Valley. Visibility averages about 500 feet…(should I say the “mean visibility”?)… although it can drop rapidly to only a few feet in some pockets. It often causes multi-car pileups in the winter, and you have to crawl along the freeway, hoping to see another car’s lights.

Tule fog
Tule fog in Bakersfield, photo from Wikipedia

Writing seems to be like that. You crawl along, miserable that you can’t go faster, only able to see a few feet ahead. I can visualize the next sentence, and usually the next paragraph or the transitions between, but no farther. I can inch forward, miserable at this slow speed, hoping to see a guidepost somewhere, but usually out on my own, feeling my way towards the end.

And, suddenly, there it is!

I hate writing. I love having written.
–Dorothy Parker


One Reply to “How Do I Know What I Mean until I See What I Say?”

  1. A font of wisdom you are. I spent most of yesterday on the cat in my book and the cat I took out of my book.

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