Truly obscure quotation

The puzzle was set in my 1/17 posting “The bearded cartoonist, post-simectomy”: an often-cited Flannery O’Connor quotation that I could find no source for.  Reader Mark Mandel took my puzzle to the American Dialect Society mailing list, hoping that one of the hounds of ADS-L would do better, in particular that Quote Investigator Garson O’Toole had collected material for the QI site. And so it has turned out, though I doubt anyone will be especially satisfied by learning that she used the quotation in a 1948 letter to her publisher, while denying credit for it and attrbuting it to an “old lady”.

So here’s the story.

AZ on 1/17.

The mysteries of artistic creation. We have wandered, inevitably I expect, into the question of where visual and verbal artists get their ideas and how they realize them in detail. Much explicit planning, but also ideas that come into our heads — who knows from where — in the shower.

And then the stuff that appears in the doing of the art. Which comes from somewhere in the artist, but not all of it by conscious thought. “It’s a little bit like being possessed”, I said [earlier in that posting]. Writers often say that their characters take over the story and tell them where it will go. [Cartoonist] Bob [Eckstein]: “these faces come pouring out onto the page”. Famously, Flannery O’Connor is quoted as explaining: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

So she is quoted, again and again, but never with an actual source that I can find. However, the leading idea in her quote has been expressed in various ways by a considerable number of writers in citable places, among them George Bernard Shaw, Stephen King, William Faulkner, and Joan Didion. Didion’s pithy version: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down”.

Garson O’Toole. The (pseudonymous) maintainer of the the wonderful Quote Investigator site, which I’ve quoted from many times on this blog. See my 3/31/17 posting “No, they didn’t say that”, on the occasion of O’Toole’s publishing Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, about the sources of misattribution.

O’Toole’s brief sourcing. On ADS-L on 1/22:

Flannery O’Connor did employ a version of the saying in a letter she
wrote in 1948, but she disclaimed credit and pointed to an “old lady”.
O’Connor was probably referring to the anonymous “old lady” whom E. M. Forster ascribed the saying to in 1927.

[reference:] 1979, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald, Part I: Up North and Getting Home 1948-1952, letter date: July 21, 1948, page 5, to Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York. (verified with scans)

[excerpt:] 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.

The QI piece. The article about this family of sayings on the Quote Investigator website:  “How Can I Know What I Think Till I See What I Say?” (link).

One Response to “Truly obscure quotation”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Garson O’Toole, posting to ADS-L on 1/27:

    On January 22 Mark Mandel reposted a passage from Arnold Zwicky’s blog about a family of sayings that can be split into two subfamilies:

    (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

    Now, I have posted an article focused on the second family. A variety of people have employed instances including: writer Flannery O’Connor, actress Inger Stevens, journalist August Heckscher, economist Paul Samuelson, actress Shirley MacLaine, writer Joan Didion, novelist E. L. Doctorow, screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, playwright Edward Albee, playwright Wendy Wasserstein, poet Virginia Hamilton Adair, and horror scribe Stephen King.

    An article about the first subfamily of sayings is here:

    [Acknowledgment:] Great thanks to Arnold Zwicky and Mark Mandel whose remarks and inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.

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