What Is Automatic Writing?

In this post, we explore what automatic writing is and how it is relevant to writers.

What Is Automatic Writing & How Do I Do It?

Sometimes connecting to your muse is demanding – wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were an automatic way? Lucky you, there is a writing technique called automatic writing. This article will give you some ideas on what it is and how to do it.

What Is Automatic Writing?

Let us start with what it’s not: it’s not writing produced by a robot or other automated devices. You still need to do your own writing! It is called ‘automatic’ because automatic writers seem disembodied, and robot-like during the writing process.

Automatic writing is a technique invented by French surrealism. It aims to shake off all control of consciousness to produce unconventional texts with raw, striking images and unusual descriptions (I’ll explain how to do this further down).

Apart from this, the definition of automatic writing is elusive. Some call it a form of psychography where writers channel a spirit and write down what it tells them. Often, people use devices like Ouija boards. Others employ hypnosis or drugs to write automatically (we strongly discourage this!).

Freewriting (such as Julia Cameron’s morning pages) is similar in that it encourages writers to shake off all conventions. Yet it still allows conscious control. Freewriting is a brainstorming technique, while automatic writing aims to produce a finished text.

Hardcore practitioners will refuse to edit automatic texts to preserve their originality. It can make reading very strenuous, though.

If you want to take a more practical approach, you can use automatic writing to produce raw material but then edit as you like. In this way, automatic texts are treated similarly to freewriting, which is why the two methods are confused so often.

How Do I Do Automatic Writing?

French surrealists claimed you could only write automatically in a trance-like state. But only a few (like Robert Desnos) were able to get into this state whenever they wanted. Others needed more guidance, so the surrealists invented several techniques. Automatic writing is one of them.

Here are some ideas on how to do it:

1. Automatic Writing In A Group:

A facilitator guides the group and watches the writers during the exercise. Especially for beginners the mere idea of ‘letting go’ can be scary.

First, the facilitator explains some rules: a set period for the exercise, and a signal phrase to start and stop writing. Writers close their eyes, with pencils and paper already in their hands.

The facilitator guides them into a dream-like state, usually by evoking a setting with sensory details. Given the signal, the group starts writing as fast as possible. This continues until the facilitator gives the signal to stop.

It is important to continue with this activity for a longer amount of time. Your consciousness will still control your first sentences. Whenever you do run out of things to write, don’t stop the activity! Just write what comes to your mind even if it is something like ‘I have no idea.’ Writing this a few times, the unconscious will generate fresh ideas!

2. Automatic Writing With Sensory Prompts:

This requires a bit of practice and knowledge about how your mind works.

What is your favourite sense? Usually, smells trigger a lot of memories and associations. Sounds also work very well. For example, you could turn on your favourite music. Instrumental music works best.

Switch on the music, have your writing materials ready, and close your eyes. Relax. Start writing when the images come. Describe what you see before your inner eye. When the music is over, just continue to write for as long as you feel comfortable.

3. Exercise ‘I Remember’:

Shared by the University of Iowa, this exercise is based on Joe Brainard’s memoir I Remember. Here is how to do it:

Write ‘I remember’ at the top of your page. Then delve deep into your memories. Write down whatever comes to mind; be careful not to be judgmental. Whenever you get stuck, start a new line with ‘I remember’ and see where the next memory takes you.

4. Dream Diary:

Have you ever had this tremendous idea for a story or a poem, right before falling asleep? If you are lucky enough to write it down, that story will be ingenious! So, the remedy is easy: always have a notepad next to your bed. Record your dreams as soon as you wake up.

This is the experience that led the French Surrealists to produce all their ideas for automatic writing.

5. Playfulness:

Playfulness is a state without rules. We are in this ‘safe zone’ where anything is possible because we are playing, right?

Surrealists were interested in games because they allow us to lift some of the control mechanisms of our consciousness.

Here is one exercise like ‘I Remember’ (see above), but a little more playful: Take your favourite colour (for example, blue) and start writing sentences like this:

‘Blue is the colour of (here, you write what you associate the colour blue with).’

Now you write 15 to 20 of these sentences, always with the same colour and the same sentence structure. The first ones will be straightforward. There will come a point when you run out of things to say. Stick with it! Keep on writing until your list is complete. Try not to think too much. The last sentences will have fresh images and unusual metaphors. Those are the ones you want.

6. Self-Hypnosis Through Daily Writing Routines:

Stephen King, for example, uses his daily writing routine as a form of self-hypnosis. Going through these routines tells his body he is going to write. That way, he can tap into his inspiration any time he sits down at his desk. So why not try these suggestions for a daily writing routine and see what works for you? 

Why Should I Try Automatic Writing?

The obvious answer to this question is: because it is fun! But it is also a terrific way to enhance the quality of your art.

Surrealists teach us that the writing process directly influences our texts. If you change the process, you influence the result. Don’t forget that teachers educate us for years in punctuation, idioms of our language, and the symbols of our culture. These conventions have a profound influence (and control!) on what and how we write.

The Surrealists want us to shake them off to give free rein to our creativity. They suggest techniques like automatic writing to circumvent some of the controls of our consciousness.

The Last Word

Do not be surprised if your automatic texts are hard to read and hard to understand. Think of them not as polished texts but as raw material to use for other texts. Please try this technique and have fun with it!

I hope this article will entice you to try new ways of writing. Remember, our creativity tends to stay on well-trodden paths. Automatic writing might just be the technique for you to shake things up. If not, the Surrealists have invented other techniques, and I will write more about them in upcoming posts. Happy writing!

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett. Susanne  is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

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Posted on: 6th June 2022
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