Working through Problems with Automatic Writing

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.


Automatic Writing

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is a great source for automatic writing prompts.

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 . . . .”

automatic writing

Writing for ten minutes is a measurable and achievable goal.

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.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin tells stories to create change. Read more at her website and by subscribing to her blog.


19 thoughts on “Working through Problems with Automatic Writing

  1. I often use automatic writing between projects, when I’m not working on a story (or I’m looking for a story), and I want to keep the writing muscles toned. I discovered Natalie Goldberg 25 years ago, and often go to her books when I start to doubt this writing thing (which is often). Thanks for sharing your thoughts on her method of writing.

    • “Keeping the writing muscles toned” is exactly right! Thanks for sharing your experiences with automatic writing. ~Always nice to hear from you.

  2. I haven’t tried automatic writing, but I just realized how I’m already doing a similar thing that I call “talk aloud”, which works for me — “automatic talking,” you could say. If I’m stuck on writing, it’s never the words themselves, but confusion about what’s really happening with my character in this scene, or what the point is. So I walk away from my computer and talk about the character and the scene out loud, going over and over it from different directions and asking myself questions about it, a bit like I’m explaining it to my cat (who is not so good at feedback, but great at listening). I find that I process difficult problems more effectively if I actually say things out loud rather than simply think silently. I almost always get to that “A-ha!” moment where I rush back to the computer and write down my new idea for pulling it all together — although sometimes that idea is that this scene isn’t working because it’s not adding to the story, and I should skip it and go to the next scene instead.

    • This is fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing your “automatic talking” method, which makes so much sense to me. I always read my radio scripts as I write them – mostly to make sure I don’t have any really hard to pronounce word combinations – but often hear a better and more succinct way of saying what I mean (or figuring out what it is I really want to say). And cats are good listeners; dogs, not so much.

      • I haven’t tried it with dogs, but I can see what you mean! I do the same thing once I’ve gotten to a “decent” draft: read the chapter aloud to see how it flows. The problem I sometimes get to is that I’m so sure about how it’s *supposed* to sound that I get to the point where I can’t see it objectively — especially dialogue. So when I go to critique group, I’ll have someone else read the chapter aloud, to see how it reads to new eyes.

  3. Interesting take and new perspective on old writing ‘triggers’ I once used in a creative writing class for 10 year olds. I gave them each a piece of paper and asked them to write down a colour, a word (it didn’t matter if it was simply the word the. an animal or person old, young, baby middle aged etc. write down for example old dog. pink pig. grumpy grandpa. Every child was asked to free write but try to use whatever they had written on their pages. Oh the variety and creativity which emerged from eight children. This was then pooled and each one went away to see if a trigger had been sparked in their own writing by ideas gleaned from all. (It certainly sparked me!!).

  4. Pingback: Working through Problems with Automatic Writing | Phil Slattery's Blog

    • You are so welcome! Thank you for being a regular reader – and for taking the time to let me know. Best wishes to you and yours this holiday season and in the year to come. ~Deborah.

  5. I’ve never heard of automatic writing,but it sounds interesting enough to try
    The nearest I’ve got to that was when I entered a story competition based on Wind in the willows
    2000 words were required, more than I had ever done before, but once I thought of a title the story wrote itself by listening to the main characters talking in my imagination
    P.S. Don’t worry about deleting my last comment instead of replying

  6. It’s a good idea. I also did it in teaching especially in writing class.. initially results are not encouraging but with more effort it gives good results.. thanks for sharing…

    • I think one of the great benefits of automatic writing is permission to write junk. Many of my polished pieces start as barely intelligible garbage which I sift through for the treasures, which I then clean up. Thanks for your comment and the repost.

  7. Pingback: Working through Problems with Automatic Writing – All-about-aesthetics

  8. I enjoyed your post; I myself had been struggling to find things to write about…When an idea does not happen, I would get writer’s block on occasion. However, I would eventually get ideas and then write them down as drafts for upcoming blog posts. I am also an e-book author now, but I still write in my very own blog. Thanks so very much for that post-Stop by and pay my blog a visit why don’t cha?!-JW

  9. Pingback: If you want to write, write! And other infuriating advice | Live to Write – Write to Live

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