How Can I Tell What I Think Till I See What I Say

I have mentioned before a particular fondness for a quote by the British writer E.M. Forster (and of which assumes the title of this post). It comes from his book on writing, Aspects of the Novel, which he penned in 1927. In this particular chapter, Forster is concerned with the subject of plotting and begins the section with a quote from a well-known Greek philosopher:

Character, says Aristotle, gives us qualities, but it is in actions–what we do–that we are happy or the reverse.

Forster then goes on to argue against Aristotle’s position, at least in terms of how it relates to what a novelist is charged with doing: illuminating the subconscious. Instead, he contends, happiness and misery exist inside the individual, a sort of a secret life of which there is no “external evidence”. He suggests that for a novelist to do this well, he must have command over all emotion and know in what direction the story is heading, what to leave in and what to take out.

I believe that, but to get to the point of why I think this is worth sharing on a blog that deals mostly with diabetes and raising a family, I should explain the context from which Forster drew his now famous line. In the chapter, he highlights the plot found in Les Faux Monneyuers, by André Gide, in which one of the characters, Edouard, a novelist, expresses his intent to write a character story about the struggle between reality and what we make of it, or as he puts it, a “slice of life” that leaves nothing out. A story about everything.

“My poor man, you will bore your readers to death,” a friend responds. “And what is the subject?”

“There is none,” Edourdo retorts.

“Have you planned out this book?’

“Of course not…I am waiting for reality to dictate to me.”

If this scene sounds similar you might recall the Seinfeld episode where George proposes to pitch a show about nothing. In Aspects of the Novel, Forster — and to some extent George — uses the moment as a means of suggesting that artists should become mixed up in their work, let it move them along, subdue them and tote them away, as it should the observer. The problem that Jerry points out, as does Edouard’s companion, is that truth in life and truth in art are not identical. All that is prearranged, Forster suggests, is false.

It’s a fact that he finally illustrates with the anecdote of an old lady who stood accused of being illogical. “Logic? Good gracious! What rubbish!” the lady exclaimed. “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”

This is, of course, at the center of what many of us who write about living with diabetes are after. To cut open, peel back and lay bare the truth of what life is like for us, to make sense of it and embrace it. To not let it hold us back. After all, to quote E.M. Forster once more, We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

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4 Responses to How Can I Tell What I Think Till I See What I Say

  1. Steve September 9, 2011 at 7:45 am #

    Shannon — I hadn’t thought of that, may need to keep that in mind as I come up with future posts. Some psychologist out there might use them to peek into my psyche 🙂

    Sara — Thanks for your comment and you are so right –oddly, there is some peace to be found in what we already know about life.

    Kristin — I use his comment (and techniques) everywhere, in teaching about writing, in writing about diabetes, and especially in my fiction. How better to explain humanity. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Kristin September 8, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    I love that Forster comes up in the context of T1. The Modernists had it down when it came to the unspeakable/unknowable at the heart of things – thank you for the reminder!

  3. Sara Fincham September 8, 2011 at 12:37 am #

    I’m not sure Ray and I were living the “life we planned” before Ellie was diagnosed…but I have recently learned to live the life that is happening. Or at least I’m trying to learn. We are raised to believe that we can do anything, that hard work, dedication and focus will net us our dreams. Chronic illnesses pretty much spit in the face of all that belief I think. But as time passes, I’ve realized that diabetes is the same game, just different cards. We all must accept a certain level of chance and follow a path not picked…I think as we age we realize that our “control” was limited anyway…it’s like a dirty little secret that those who experience this disease get to find out much earlier than others. There are times that I feel wise due to Ellie’s diagnosis. Life truly has more meaning to me these days, it is quite peaceful sometimes!
    I love that you are writing so much! I look forward to it!

  4. shannon September 8, 2011 at 12:32 am #

    this blog would perhaps be the only google return, were one to search “seinfeld + em forster”. LOVE IT.

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