Writers are often inspired by some ghost—a lingering feeling or charge, whether attributed to one’s own inner psychological state or an honest-to-god spirit. I think of William Butler Yeats, for instance, who relied heavily on the automatic writing of his spouse, Georgie Hyde-Lees, or Gisèle Prassinos, discovered by and published alongside the surrealists at age 14. To say nothing of Fernando Pessoa who composed through the multiple discrete personalities (what he called heteronyms), Quian Xi, Lucille Clifton, Leonora Carrington, or even the artificial intelligence model designed to write like a human, GPT3.
No matter where they come from, automatic techniques provide a great way to capture the idiosyncratic energy of an idea. The method is loose, live, and generous. It can help overcome the inevitable stuck feeling that comes when drafting new work and reveal unexpected juxtapositions.
I like to use automatic writing to address specific goals within my otherwise traditional writing process and while the material produced is inevitably useful, only a fraction of it actually appears in the final work. My book, The Healing Circle, dabbles in New Age and esoteric traditions. As the protagonist lies on her death bed waiting for her miracle cure to kick in, she considers different healers, a psychic, and a talking aloe plant called Madame Blavatsky. The book is composed entirely in the present tense with multiple vignettes from the protagonist’s past that seem to occur simultaneously. That structure gives the book (I hope) an experimental quality but it isn’t born from an automatic writing process. My automatic writing is instead evident in descriptions of the hospital, the woods, and other architectural spaces.
Whether or not my automatic writing has direct use in a final manuscript, there is a real energy and pleasure in the activity, one that I believe infuses its associated novel in surprising and meaningful ways. I find my best juxtapositions through automatic writing, while often discovering an emotional core of a character that I never would have realized previously. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.
In the following list, I use the legacies of six writers whose work touches on the paranormal to develop experimental writing prompts. These prompts can be used on their own or as methods to get “unstuck” while working on more traditional literary endeavors.
Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935): For the Who of It
Pessoa famously developed a suit of heteronyms or alter egos and wrote from their voices—some say as a way of creating the literary scene he wished existed. His multiple alter egos come from a remarkable range of backgrounds and similarly express themselves through different aesthetic agendas and formal interests.
In this exercise, make a list of two to three characters or objects of interest in your writing. Keep the list in front of you, close your eyes, and begin to breathe in time with a ticking clock. Let one breath cycle (in and out) expand to fill first four seconds, then six, all the way up to 10. Open your eyes. See what your gaze falls on—whether a name on your list, or some other peripheral object, and, for the next 10-15 minutes—or until you are ready to stop—imagine the character’s (or object’s) aesthetic preferences.
What environments/encounters/objects give them joy? How would they express that joy or make that joy evident? What is the nature of their satisfaction? Notice your breathing—is it possible to breathe like the being you are imagining? (Or, if an object, to translate their being-ness into your own breath?) What are their favorite adjectives? What adjectives do they dislike? Describe an experience when they lost themselves in a moment.
As you describe their styles, let their traits—rhythms of description, syntax, subclauses, and speech patterns—overtake your own so that by the last three minutes you are writing entirely through their voices. Continue writing (beyond the allotted time) as needed. This text can later be incorporated into your work in different ways, through dialogue or description to name a few.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939): Meditation on Something that May Come for What
This is an exercise for when you are stuck and, like all of these exercises, can be modified to suit your question. In the original version of this story, Yeats took a flower, burned it, and placed a bell jar around the ashes according to the instructions of an 18th century astrologer. After a predetermined number of evenings, the astrologer said, a shadow or specter of the flower would appear in the Bell Jar.
For this exercise, writers should make a list of at least 20 items that have been misplaced on a small piece of paper. These could be items lost by the author or character over the course of their life. You can draw the objects if that is preferred.
Participants are then invited to tear up this piece of paper into tiny, unrecognizable pieces so that the paper cannot be reassembled. Leave the pieces in a covered dish or box in a safe place for several days. Return to the dish thereafter, place the pieces on your writing table, and play with the pieces. Without reassembling, try to recall what was on the original list and begin writing about those objects.
Write about this process for at least 15 minutes without removing your pen from the page or fingers from the keyboard. Some questions you could answer are: What are the feelings that were lost with the objects on this list? Which object had the strongest scent and what does that scent evoke beyond the object? Where might this object be found? Is there a harmony among the objects lost? Can objects get lost in books?
Qian Xi (1872-1930): Where will you meet them?
Spirit writing, or fuji 扶乩 in Chinese, started during the Song (960–1279) dynasty and was later popularized by the leading literati—for instance, Qian Xi who composed more than 300 poems in her lifetime, among them those written with the planchette. Qian Xi was able to connect with her deceased husband and son in her writing. Such experiences create a sense of encounter with a “beyond” place, outside of mortal existence.
This exercise attempts to reach for a similar space in your own work in the hopes of articulating a kind of super-consciousness using a tray full of sand or dirt and a stick. Place your feet in water. You can be barefooted, wearing socks, or socks and shoes as you prefer, but the rest of your body should be dry.
Keeping your hand relaxed, hold a stick or pencil as lightly as possible, over a piece of paper. Begin by drawing a doorway. As you do so, imagine yourself entering the where-ness of your work. This where-ness can refer to anything from the structure of your language on a page to the physical or emotional architecture described.
Try to walk through that designated architectural or physical space that you describe in your work. Begin to draw the floorplan of the space you imagine yourself walking through. It is not necessarily realistic. Resist removing your pen from the page. Allow the depiction to write over itself as you wish.
The drawing hovers above your wet feet. Are there spaces within that imagined architecture that don’t make physical sense? Parts of a building that don’t add up, for instance? What happens if you enter those irregularities with your mind? Where are your feet in that case? What or who else is occupying the space of those inconsistencies? What do they say about your text? Will you put an art show there or do you want to tear them down? Why? What would that show be?
As you walk through those spaces in your mind’s eye, see what additional questions emerge and say those out loud while watching the stick. Pay attention to what marks are described as you ask those questions and what those marks make you think of through free association. Record these observations as needed.
Gisèle Prassinos (1920-2015): The Way of a When and Search Engines with gratitude also to Vauhini Vara (born 1982)
A) Although she never considered herself a Surrealist, Prassinos was published by the Surrealists when she was just 14 and continued a vibrant and lasting career thereafter. She also made fabric sculptures and drawings.
For this exercise, find a piece of fabric, a needle, and a thread. Place earplugs in your ears. Instead of writing, begin to stitch patterns on that piece of fabric while saying the following line from Prassinos’s story, “The Photogenic Quality”: ‘One day a small child slipped out of his mother’s arms. He had noticed a pencil stub on the ground that he wanted. So he picked it up, made a hole in the ground, put the pencil in it, and covered it up. His mother, seeing this, started to cry and said, “You shouldn’t live without joy.”’
Repeat this phrase and between repetitions, recall a line from your own work and say it out loud. Stitch the feeling that saying these words out loud makes you feel. Stitch for at least 10 minutes or more and once finished (or satisfied with the mark-making that has emerged on the fabric, “translate” your immediate and singular impression of the fabric back into language.
B) As a counterpoint to the aforementioned exercise and in the spirit of Vauhini Vara’s writing experiments with GPT3, identify three to five deep, personal questions that you rarely if ever discuss. Set your computer to play binaural beats and write those questions out using the writing materials of your choice. Close your eyes. Count backwards from 100, saying “when” out loud between numbers and, when you open your eyes, open your computer, open a search engine and rephrase those questions from memory (e.g.; without looking at your paper) and rephrase them in relation to When.
Following each search result, write three to five sentences that interpret the search engine’s findings as though it were a tarot reading for your question, then select one header, click on that and write out another interpretation of the results. This cycle can be repeated as long as you like or until your question is answered. To exit this sequence, take your hands away from your writing utensil/s of choice, count from one to 100, saying “through” between numbers, and snap both fingers at once. Close your computer.
Lucille Clifton (1936-2010): Finding Voice in Why
In 1976, Lucille Clifton participated in her first Ouija board experiments with her family and thereby discovered a new method for automatic writing, one that connected her with spirits and histories. This exercise is intended to help answer unresolved questions around character motivation and texture.
Put on a pair of sunglasses and write out a list of five pertinent why-questions surrounding the driving personalities of a given work and addressed to that character. Hold a small pendulum above a list of questions on one piece of paper. Place a voice recording device nearby and begin recording.
Once you are recording, say the question out loud and hold the pendulum over that question. Watch it as it begins to move and describe the movement of the pendulum for the recording. Do this for all five questions. Be as specific as possible. All observations count.
When all questions have been described in relation to the pendulum, set the pendulum down and listen to the recording. On a separate piece of paper, try to translate the pendulum’s movement into a human word-based response.
A sample list of questions could be: What do you dream about and where do your dreams come from? What do you eat for breakfast? Who were you in a past life? What is your favorite object and where did it come from?
Leonora Carrington (1917-2011): Gloves + Animals to How
In an effort to think about the act of writing, I propose an homage to Leonora Carrington, a surrealist writer and artist known for critiquing her male counterparts’ tendency to represent women in their work as signifiers for the unconscious.
For this exercise, write with a pair of gloves on. Begin by describing the sensation of the pen in your hand and the sensation of the words passing through your hand and through the pen onto the page. Trace the language all the way back in a step-by-step process, to see if you can feel the pen you write with in your mind.
Where are the words coming from? What is the relationship between the language and the pen? Where is the glove that intervenes? When stuck, find another surface or—ideally, an animal or plant—to touch while wearing the same gloves for three-minute increments before beginning again to write. If still stuck, meditate on the image of a hyena-debutante wearing gloves on her hairy paws.
This exercise is based on an anecdote form Carrington’s life during which she escaped the care of an asylum through the back door of a glove shop in Lisbon. The hyena comes from Carrington’s story, “The Debutante.”