When I don’t know what I want to say, when I want to go deeper into an idea, and when I want to clear my mind, I turn to automatic writing.
In automatic writing, also called psychography, writers put words on the page without the editorial filter. The goal, as Natalie Goldberg writes in her landmark book, Writing Down the Bones, is to keep the hand moving. Spelling and grammar don’t matter. And if the thoughts take a momentary pause, you just keep your hand moving. When this happens to me I write, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck.” Eventually, a new idea will bump the hand into other words.
While I prefer to practice automatic writing with a pen on paper, I sometimes practice it on the computer, typing furiously. In either case, the words don’t always make sense, and that’s okay. The point of automatic writing is not to produce a finished piece but to empty one’s mind onto the page like spilling the contents of a trashcan on the floor, allowing you to sift through the trash and discover the one gem worth saving.
Sometimes that gem is an idea or an image or a new line of thought. It’s a new place to start from.
I also use automatic writing to teach. I give my students a prompt and set a timer for anywhere from five to fifty minutes. The shorter times help generate memories and images, the longer times allow students to draft whole stories. Practicing automatic writing against the clock often adds a frisson of pressure that helps students focus and stick to the page.
Prompts can be anything that is evocative, from single words (“peacock”), to simple phrases (I remember . . .), to poems, excerpts from fiction or essays, photographs, textures, aromas. Sometimes, I write sentences that start with, “I see . . . .”
As the writer Dorothy Parker noted, sticking to the page is sometimes the hardest part of writing, but she put it this way: “Writing is the art of applying ass to seat.” Expecting to sit down and write all day is often unreasonable, especially at the beginning of a project, when you’re finding your way into a story or theme. But sitting down for ten minutes at a time is a measurable and achievable goal. Moreover, it can be done while waiting in the car, while waiting at the dentist’s office, during the last ten minutes of a lunch break, as soon as you wake up, and last thing before bed.
If you don’t already use automatic writing, give it a try – and let me know how it goes.