Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 18.
So to recap, we’ve moved from lists to freewriting and we’ve discussed freewriting’s murky fascist past but one of things I didn’t mention about Dorothea Brande, the great old racist grandma of creative writing pedagogy is that, in the years following the publication of her hugely popular creative writing text Becoming A Writer, she became a spiritualist medium.
And this can be no coincidence. Freewriting and plugging into the Freudian unconscious was always kissing cousins with the rather funkier tradition of automatic writing – that is to say, the practice of a medium or spiritual channeler picking up a pen or brush and, perhaps in a trance state, giving over the responsibility for the content to an external agency. It’s like outsourcing your writing to a freelancer – who’s dead.
As I’ve said, it has a long history. It’s recorded taking place in 5th Century China, and this form of spiriting writing, called fúj? where one writes in ashes or sand using a stick became widely practised during the Song Dynasty. In 16th Century England, the occult philosopher John Dee claimed to have had an entire language dictated to him, and during the height of the Spiritualist movement it was very common for people to either hold a pencil, move a glass across a Ouija board, or even write via a small wooden platform on wheels through which a pen or pencil was placed so it could glide freely.
I don’t especially believe in any of the traditional mystic or extraphysical explanations of automatic writing, although you are welcome to and please don’t think I’m looking down my nose or indeed cocking a rationalist snook at you as a result. Your sense of the mechanism by which it operates is kind of irrelevant to your making use of it – unless of course you believe you’re making yourself a conduit for powerful interdimensional entities of incredible evil who will gradually, through repeated exposure, wrest control of your will and bend you towards their wicked ends, in which case, well, I can certainly understand why you might be a mite leery.
On the other hand, how well has your life gone with you in the driving seat? Mightn’t it be time to let a vice-marquis of pandemonium have a go behind the wheel? They might be an excellent poet.
Automatic writing is, in essence, an exercise in disassociation. It’s about your saying – this is, for good or ill, nothing to do with me. I’m just turning up. And I think this selective, temporary detachment can be a very adaptive psychological strategy.
You know I’ve been reading some research recently about political views, and how, when we have deeply held beliefs that we connect in some way to our identity, and then we’re confronted with information that challenges those beliefs, some of the same areas activate in our brain that activate when we’re under physical threat. We have a stress response, we shut down, we become less receptive to new data and actually you see the default mode network, the brain’s mind-wandering mode, activate, as we just psychologically check-out rather than deal with it.
So you can see why identifying with our output, as we write, evaluating it live so to speak, with the attitude that this is me, this work represents me, might trigger all those same responses. I think people who are invested in being authors are particularly vulnerable to this, because if you want to think of yourself as a writer, and you produce crap writing, that’s an existential threat. It genuinely feels like you, your actual soul, is cracking open. It’s an horrendous feeling and completely unhelpful.
But anyone of us who starts writing and treats what comes out as ‘oop, here come the results of the referendum on whether I’m a complete piece of shit’ is going to have a bad time. At best, you get a temporary stay of execution. At worst, it’s like ‘oh god, I knew I was a bad writer, here’s the proof. Why am I doing this?’
I have never felt less like a writer than when I’m writing. It can be so threatening and unpleasant if you’re given to anxiety and self-criticism as I have historically been. And an easy way to avoid that stress, that repeated disconfirmation of all your hopes and dreams, is to avoid writing. Hence writers’ ubiquitous propensity to procrastinate. I don’t think I’m alone here. I may do it a bit more than other people and be a bit sadder and more fearful than others, but I think most of us experience it at one time or another. And lots of people get round it by never trying.
This is all a long-winded way of saying – imagining that your writing is being produced, not by you, but by a capricious and eloquent ghost, may be a fiction, but I’d argue it can be a useful one. You know I deliberately use this clinical language of beliefs and strategies being adaptive or maladaptive. That has nothing to say on their truth value. I think – and there’s a body of evidence which I reckon supports me which I won’t go into now – that there are cases, in which it can be adaptive, helpful, healthy and productive to believe something that isn’t true. Or, if you prefer, to temporarily suspend our disbelief. To pretend. To, well, do the same thing you do every time you read a story or watch TV. To play.
I think this is what we’re edging towards, right now. This shift from word splurges to starting to channel particular voices, summon specific entities from within you. Our personalities are just constructs, really, aggregations of habits and ways of relating to the world. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a multitude of perfectly valid alternate selves bubbling around waiting to be loosed. Or who knows, maybe there really are benevolent alien intelligences or Ascended Masters or learned ancestors or cunning demons clustering around you right now, all aching to take custody of your hands and finally have their say.
In 1917, WB Yeats began practising automatic writing, like we’ve been doing, almost daily, after his new wife Georgie Hyde-Lees introduced him to it. His early attempts were often incoherent, shambolic, rambling. Sometimes he’d write for ages, only for the voice to tell him that everything he’d just written had been a deliberate distraction, meant to lead him astray. But he continued to do it, almost every day, through the whole year, through 1918, and into 1919. Which is when he wrote this:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Would Yeats have written The Second Coming without his daily practice of automatic writing? I mean, it’s a pointless question, we can’t answer it. All I can tell you is that automatic writing, free, unedited writing is the seed he sowed every day. And this is what he reaped.
There are some other examples of this that I want to talk about in the days ahead but when channelling a spirit, or in the case of the modern Christian charismatic movement where worshippers begin speaking in tongues, it often begins tentatively, with a sense of self-consciousness, and it’s only over time that fluency and direction begin to take shape.
So who wants to talk to you today? And what do they have to say? I don’t know. You probably won’t until you start moving the pen or striking the keys. But I think it’s only polite to do what many mediums, diviners, channelers and assorted mancers have done over the centuries, which is to listen.
So for today’s freewrite, this loose exploration, this open, receptive state of creativity and production, where all the previous rules apply. Nothing you write is a mistake. Whatever style appears, whether short sentences or long, big words or small, just let it come and observe. Try to keep writing, don’t think too much, don’t worry if the voice seems to change or contradict or repeat itself. We’re just building a channel. If it doesn’t make sense, if it’s just nonsense words or noise, that’s ok. If you don’t know where it’s going, that’s ok too.
At the top of your paper today, you’re going to open a channel to whatever wishes to speak. Again, it’s a sentence fragment for the voice to continue. So I’d you to write, quote: ‘The first thing you should know, is…’
So that’s ‘The first thing you should know, is…’
Got it? ‘The first thing you should know, is…’ Are you ready? You’ve got ten minutes. Three… two… one. Go.
And that’s it. I don’t know who or what came up. You might like to take a break then come back and see what’s there. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to trick you into summoning an eldritch abomination, we’re just experimenting with different methods to bypass various modes of rational inhibition, and create some soft, wet clay.
Later in the course I’ll be steering you through the truest of the dark arts, self-editing. What we’re doing now is combination self-hypnosis, roleplay, and farting around. Which I think are the three pieces of the writing triforce.
And there’s more. The barriers between worlds have been rubbed thin by our meddling. Let us seize this opportunity to draw more voices through from the other side. And with that in mind, sweet dreams, and I’ll see you tomorrow.