Why We Should Not Know Exactly What We’re Doing When We Write.

In reading about authors, I’ve noticed a similar theme come up again and again, and that is that writers don’t often know quite what it is that they’re writing. Say whaaaat? One would think that if anybody should know what they’re writing, that it would be perhaps, say, a writer.

Yet, in the introduction to her novel, The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing writes, “The book is alive and potent and fructifying and able to promote thought and discussion only when its plan and shape and intention are not understood, because that moment of seeing the shape and plan and intention is also the moment when there isn’t anything more to be got out of it.”

In a similar vein, Virginia Woolf writes in her journal, “I’m certain that the only meanings that are worth anything in a work of art are those that the artist himself know nothing about. The moment the artist tries to express his ideas and his emotions, he misses the great thing.”

Also, in his book Marcel Proust, Edmund White tells us that “Proust was anti-intellectual and convinced that the domain of art, which is recollected experience, can never be tapped through reasoning or method alone, it must be delivered to us fresh and vivid, through a process beyond the control of the intellect or willpower.”

And from Carson McCullers: “I never understood what I had written until it was done.”

I kind of get all this and I kind of don’t. Of course, writers have to have some idea what they’re doing or they could never begin. Yet I’ve experienced this sort of over-logic, as Stephen King calls it in his book, On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft. King tells us that he loves “that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects.”

I think this is magical, these little secrets we keep from ourselves. And it’s part of what keeps us going as writers, this ambition to see what in the world we’re thinking, what our characters might be thinking. I think we do this in life in general as well … stumble forward while looking for connections with each other and with the world. And when we’re lucky, every once in a while we look back and say, “Ahhh, so that’s what that was all about.”


It’s been a c-c-cold week. Tonight, I’m joining loved ones for dinner at “The Turf Room.” We will surely sit near the fire and order warming cosmopolitans, because at this restaurant the bartenders pour these drinks so full that the liquid actually goes up and over the glass without spilling. This also seems magical, and the term to explain it is called convex meniscus. It’s when the particles in the liquid have a stronger attraction to each other than to the material of the container. Isn’t that romantic?