Discovery Writing and the so-called Forster Quote

I’m doing a PhD on ‘discovery writing‘.  As far as I’m aware, no-one has focused in on discovery writing like I am now doing.  Daniel Chandler wrote a small chapter on it in his 1995 book The Act of Writing (it’s online in full text, easy to find, excellent read), and David Galbraith has created a cognitive writing model, but other than that, discovery writing normally just gets a mention with reference to this so-called Forster quote:

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say” (attributed to E.M.Forster)

This line is frequently quoted, and carries with it the implication that Forster himself worked this way, that he would write, read what he had just written, and think ‘ah, I see’.  But it’s not quite that simple. I’m proudly calling this the ‘so-called Forster quote’ because I’ve found out that Forster didn’t actually say this, at least not quite this.  And it did not represent his way of thinking.  Like most literary quotes, if you dig a bit deeper you find things, and then there are nuances.  I imagine that what has happened is that someone, a long time ago, found that Forster had written something very close to this in his 1927 book Aspects of the Novel.  They probably then quoted it, and then someone quoted them, and then everyone quoted them, and then the context got lost and only the quote remained.  In the world of education and composition theory, Murray (1978) is the most obvious source of this so-called Forster quote.  Many others (I’m not naming names) have then cited Murray, and it’s just been cited over and over and become known as the Forster quote.

But because this quote is a kind of touchstone for what we mean when we say ‘discovery writing’, I’ve made the effort to track it down.  It seems to come, as I’ve said, from Aspects of the Novel. Forster had been critiquing Gide’s sense that a novel should not be planned.   Forster’s words are sarcastic, and put Gide’s ideas into the mouth of an uneducated “old lady”, a “distinguished critic” who has no “understand”[ing] of “what logic is”:

“Another distinguished critic has agreed with Gide – that old lady in the anecdote who has accused her nieces of being illogical.  For some time she could not be brought to understand what logic was, and when she grasped its true nature she was not so much angry as contemptuous.  “Logic!  Good gracious!  What rubbish!” she exclaimed.  “How can I tell you what I think till I see what I say?”  Her nieces, educated young women, thought that she was passée; she was really more up-to date than they were.” (Forster, 1927: 71, emphasis mine)

Forster even writes of “the danger of Gide’s position” and that he is “not well advised” (Ibid: 71); even that he is “introducing mysticism at the wrong stage of the process” (i.e. Gide shouldn’t be writing about writing, he should be writing).  Forster, then, was not an exemplar of discovery writing, as many people now assume, but was an early critic.

The idea that Forster would be an advocate for discovery writing should have set alarm bells ringing a long time ago, because Forster is known as a ‘plotter’, and strong plots are normally associated with a planning approach.  Heavily plotted stories often rely on later events giving meaning to earlier events (e.g. when the murderer is found out, their earlier suspicious actions make more sense), and this generally requires that earlier events are written in knowledge of later events.  It makes much more sense that Gide should be the discovery writer.  Gide is known for being a symbolist, which we would now term as a subset of modernism (a mostly retrospective term, not so available to Forster at that time), and modernism is known for formal and theoretical experimentation.  Gide was writing in a ‘stream of consciousness’ style, which can be thought of as presenting internal thoughts and dialogue in the style of how they arrive.  Such styles were largely new at that time and represented a different way of conceptualising time and space, consequently having strong implications for how plot and character were represented, if they were represented at all.

Gide’s writing was often a form of metafiction, i.e. his writing often presented the method of writing as an element in the story – his characters give voice to literary theory and principles.  This following excerpt from a Gide novel, Les Faux Monnayeurs, also quoted by Forster, serves as an example:

“My novel has no subject.  No doubt that sounds foolish.  Let us say, if you prefer, that it will not have ‘a subject’… ‘A slice of life,’ the naturalistic school used to say. The mistake that school made was always to cut its slice in the same direction, always lengthwise, in the direction of time.  Why not cut it up or down?  Or across?  As for me, I don’t want to cut it at all….

“Have you planned out this book?” asked Sophroniska, trying to keep grave.

“Of course not.”

“Why ‘of course’?”

“For a book of this type any plan would be unsuitable.  The whole of it would go wrong if I decided to plan any detail ahead.  I am waiting for reality to dictate to me.”   (Gide in Forster, 1927: 69)

With “no subject” and presumably little in the way of plot, Gide’s characters seem to be voicing a rejection of literary conventions, much in tune with Pound’s defining call of modernism “Make it new” – “a break from the past”.  Importantly, here, planning and plot were beginning to seem old fashioned.  Forster’s writing was beginning to represent the old, the traditional.  His traditional position here, though, arguably allowed him to voice this interregnum through a more familiar language, to question those conventions from within; elements that he still largely held as important and valuable to fiction:

“After all, why has a novel to be planned?  Cannot it grow?  Why need it close, as a play closes?  Cannot it open out?  Instead of standing above his work and controlling it, cannot the novelist throw himself into it and be carried along to some goal that he does not foresee?” (Ibid.: 67)

Forster, then, represents a position in-between styles here.  He is sceptically introducing us to ‘the new’, but voicing it from ‘the old’.

(I’ve quoted most of the above from my MSC dissertation on discovery writing, but I now realise that I don’t honesty know enough about Forster or Gide to confidently carry this argument much further, at least not with sole reference to Forster and Gide.  I’ve heard rumours that Forster freed up his writing ‘techniques’ in later life, so came to accommodate some aspects of discovery writing.  I’m also aware that my comments above tend to state a case in quite binary terms, between ‘planners’ and ‘discoverers’, as if you’re either one of the other.  That’s a bit simple, but it’s handy as a shorthand.  Chandler has been more flexible with that binary by suggesting a continuum, where you can incorporate aspects of both in how you write.  My PhD thesis is that what you write might have some important implications for how you write.  That’s partly why I keep coming back to Forster and Gide, because not only did they have different conceptions of what writing ‘is’ and ‘should be’, but they were kind of writing different ‘stuff’.  What I’m getting at here, is that you might not be a planner or discoverer by orientation (although no doubt you are, in practice), but that you might plan some things heavily, but other things you’ll try to splurge at, make up as you go along, or whatever.  I’m doing both with my PhD.  I splurge some bits, and those bits then become ‘sorted’ things in my mind, as it were.  Some bits become nothing, obviously.  So writing can be a testing ground for stuff.

I’ll leave it there and come back, as I don’t know where I’m leading to here.  Maybe this is enough for one blog post as is.  Bye bye.)


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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27 Responses to Discovery Writing and the so-called Forster Quote

  1. layanglicana says:

    Reblogged this on Ratiocinativa and commented:
    A detailed and scholarly explanation of how false attribution begins and thrives…

  2. layanglicana says:

    Fascinating. I have taken the liberty of reblogging it here:

  3. Laura Jeffries says:

    I have absolutely used this “Forster” quotation in an introductory PPT I created for my freshman composition students, talking about process writing, discovery drafting, and all. I am almost positive think I picked it up from the series of “inspirational quotations about writing” provided along the page bottoms of a teacher’s edition of a writing handbook published by a major company.

    Thanks for this article!

    • rjheeks says:

      Thanks Laura. Yes, this quote definitely does the rounds. Donald Murray used it in 1978, in an article that later became quite influential. Lots of other researchers then used it without finding out where it derived from. I only tracked it down because it was central to my PhD. Thanks.

      • donna says:

        The article is good, even if EM Foster was not responsible for the actual quote. Your investigation was great you indicated that this was not even his style that he was a plotter. But at least there was a similar statement that lead to the creation of the misquote. Both quotes are interesting

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  7. Dan says:

    My edition of Forster does seem to say “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” While it is quoted out of context the quote remains the same, not what you have in this post.

    • rjheeks says:

      Hi Dan. Interesting! Could you include a longish quote and page number so that I can see the quote in context? And what edition do you have? And which chapter is the quote in? Thanks. Richard.

  8. Barry Fox says:

    I’ve written a couple of articles on students discovering through writing. I’ve given up publishing on this matter now to concentrate on encouraging to use this function of writing at University. For a number of years I’ve been collecting quotations from their exams et cetera where they explain to me that they haven’t thought of that before until they’d started to write about it. I encourage them to do this sort of thing explaining that writing is far more important as a way for them to discover what their thoughts are then presenting polished pieces of granite. I’d be happy to correspond with you if you think it might be useful.

  9. Barry Fox says:

    I’ve just read read what I wrote and I’m afraid my device for turning sound into written text has failed me. I do not think “than” should be spelt “then”

  10. Rappeur says:

    shared your post 😉 however the theme of your WP blog doesn’t show up properly on the browser SEWER NecroPedoSadoMaso version 2.7 i hope it is fixed !

  11. Martin says:

    What has happened with this quote seems itself to be an example of cultural ‘discovery’. Forster did not himself really grasp the truth of what he was saying, but the world did. Or, he builded better than he knew.

  12. Pingback: How do I know what I think until I see what I say? | Late Blooming Rose

  13. gowellja says:

    See Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers. He explores this topic extensively.

  14. Pingback: How Do I Know What I Think Until I See What I Say? – Pen, Paper, Photos

  15. Flannery O’Connor said something very much like this in her letters: (“The Habit of Being,” p. 5):

  16. Garreth Heidt says:

    Just came upon this. I have the quotation hanging in my room, I studied at the church of Peter Elbow and Murray and the process, “Freewrtiers.” I still use it because I am a frequent attendee at workshops run at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking. (Did you happen to look into their work towards these ends? All their incoming students have to take a week-long seminar in “writing to think” or maybe it’s Writing and Thinking. I can’t remember. But Bard’s Institute is attributed to the foresight of their president, Leo Botstein, and largely based upon the input provided by Peter Elbow. You might also appreciate this:

    • rjheeks says:

      Thanks Garreth. Yes, I spent a lot of time with the texts of Elbow and Murray. I think of them and freewriting as setting the scene and providing a lot of the groundwork for later theories of writing processes – a kind of high watermark too. Thanks for the link.

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