Automatic Writing: Between the Keystrokes

by Ed Davis on June 6, 2011

I feel cautiously optimistic about how things are developing with the new novel I’m writing—and that’s truly the right word—developing—for I’m trying to get out of the way and let the story flow right through me at this point. In ways, that seems like the opposite of what I’ve been doing, keeping a novel journal of how I think things might go, where they’re heading.  But sometimes I’m way wrong; at least once the book took over and told me where it was going (an important death)—and while that might be the most dramatic example, it’s far from the only one. Seems to me that there’ve been plenty of surprises, some of which of course might need to be reconsidered. But as far as things happening, I believe they are, that it’s not a static book. 

First Thought, Best Thought?
Interestingly, I’ve almost stopped journaling, instead intuiting a general direction and then waiting till I’m at the keyboard to let things come clear between the keystrokes.  “Automatic writing,” one writer acquaintance called it (meaning he never revised), a process I mistrust a lot—would I let someone really read my first draft of . . . anything?  How about this article?  Would I be willing to post this on my blog without major rewriting?  Maybe…but what point would I be making?
Well, maybe that “first thought” could be “best thought?”  Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones, believes that “beginner’s mind” is needed every time you approach the page:  be a novice, take a risk, just let ‘er rip and see where you wind up. It’s worked for me in writing stories using Roberta Allen’s method in Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes; that is, producing kernels that I expand into longer, more complete stories. But having that much faith in myself to believe that surrendering the censor might yield gold…that’s a real stretch for me. 
Recycling or Channeling?
I do tend to believe that, even when not explicitly writing autoibiographically, I’m still using my life, broadly defined as everything I’ve ever experienced, including through reading, watching movies—all media, in fact.  Though I tend to often disdain technology, I am in a way, a sophisticated computer with a seemingly magical ability to not only recall all my “digitized” experience but also to re-combine, re-envision, re-mold that experience into something hardly recognizable as related to the kernel from which it came. 
But is that all there really is to the process? I confess I don’t think so, that there’s at least a bit of something outside my own mind that takes over and inhabits me mentally, spiritually, at times, it seems, even physically, for I often “see” the place where scenes happen, often much clearer than characters’ appearances—that’s much more a feeling for me, even after multiple revisions. 
So what is the “it” that takes over?  A mystery, of course, but it could be Jung’s archetypes, those ancients whose lives and wisdom actually exist and which our unconscious minds dip into, invited or not. Or is it God, to whom I often pray and dedicate my writing sessions? Yet I don’t think it’s either. I believe God wants me to write—I’ve given my Higher Power multiple chances to tell me otherwise. He gave me the gift—and continues to let me choose how to use it; i.e., God does not micromanage my artistic life or that of others. That doesn’t preclude Him being pleased when I make good choices, artistically and morally. I agree with Him that service to all, including oneself, is a worthy goal (I almost said “the” worthy goal) of art. 
One should write fiction, said John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, so that “no one commits suicide, no one despairs…so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.”  But he absolutely did not mean to write sentimentally (with false emotion) or lie, ever. He wants me to think that writing is, first and foremost, a noble, moral mission—but he didn’t have to name names of all the modern writers who, according to him, didn’t share his moral goals, and he didn’t have to give examples of their “bad” writing in his jeremiad On Moral Fiction—that only served Gardner’s ego. 
The Wine Cellar
So if not God or archetypes, who else could be in control of my “automatic” writing? Some deep, deep, even dark, place:  my own unconscious (not inhabited by the “otherness” of archetypes or even God)—the place I’m mostly unaware of, which is smarter, even wiser than my “waking” mind at least 95% of the time. Bingo. I think that’s it for me, the source that keeps me writing as I do, trusting the process itself to take me to the cellar where the best wine is kept, albeit dusty, mildewed and often scary; a place of gritty, often profane, even embarrassing truths. I sense when I get there—sense it in my body, from fingertips to tightening temples around my eyes to flutters throughout my body—but can’t be too sure the journey was made till the process is over, till the storm has passed and words have finished pouring themselves onto the page.
Me and Ishmael
Everything I’ve said here seems at least somewhat speculative, even mysterious, but this, at least, is undoubtedly true: I always feel deep gratefulness, relief and pleasure to’ve gotten down deep to the best stuff, to’ve been taken to the sacred cellar and, like Melville’s Ishmael, “escaped alone to tell thee.”  That journey, in a nutshell, is why I write.  Revision—the endless, interesting, necessary and fascinating creative (and often wonderfully collaborative) means to communicate one’s “deep darkness” to the world—now that’s a topic for another session.
I pretty much kept my promise to write this “automatically” without the excessive, obsessive revision I usually devote to even blog postings in my (possibly over-perfectionistic) attempt to be on guard against embarrassing myself in public.  I omitted only a couple of sentences and occasionally added a word or two (or reference) just for clarity.  Now I close my eyes and push “send”…

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

CPatLarge June 6, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Compelling refleciton. Whatever that 'it' is that takes over, that tells the story I must tell, keeps us going, doesn't it? And makes my writing life interesting, since I'm never quite sure where the story might end up!


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