For some, it’s a way of tapping into the spirit world and channeling parts of one’s psyche that are usually unavailable. For others, it’s a result of what’s known as the ideomotor effect. That is a phenomenon where someone makes motions unconsciously due to reflexes. For yet others, it’s based entirely in fiction and serves no real purpose other than to entertain those watching.
When someone is attempting automatic writing, they may produce coherent sentences and even entire paragraphs or stanzas of text. They might also string together unrelated words, bits of poetry, or obscenities.
Explore Automatic Writing
Definition of Automatic Writing
Automatic writing claims to be in the process of writing without consciously deciding what to put down on paper. It is, for some, a liberating and spiritual process. The practice has a long tradition, as described below. In some practices, automatic writing occurs when the writer uses a pencil or the planchette of an Ouija board. Some believe that spirits take control of the writer’s hands, guiding them to share a message from beyond the grave.
The writer might remain in a trace or awake. But, they are not meant to have any control of what their hand is doing. The process was incredibly popular during the late 19th century among many types of people, especially spiritualists.
For more scientists, the subconscious mind is the cause of unconscious writing rather than any spirits.
History of Automatic Writing
Automatic writing dates back to at least the Song Dynasty in China. It was known as Spirit writing or Fuji. It spread throughout the west along with practices of painting and writing. Specifically, the practice is tied to several Salvationists religions and Zen Ōbaku monks who are believed to communicate with a Taoist sage who created the kung fu system.
In the west, the practice was prominent in the Enochian language. This refers to an occult language recorded in the journals of John Dee and Edward Kelley during the 16th century. The men said that the language was given to them by angels and that it was tied to the practice of Enochian magic. For example, information about the elixir of life and its location.
Examples of Automatic Writing
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
A very famous example of automatic writing comes from the life and works of Charles Dickens. When Dickens died, his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was left unfinished. His printer, T.P. James, determined that Dickens’ spirit inhabited his hand in order to finish the novel. Dickens was, apparently, so angered by the fact that he couldn’t finish his novel that he wrote three times a week, through James, until the book was finished.
This version of the finished novel was only one of several. It was praised by other authors, like Arthur Conan Doyle, who saw something of Dickens’ original style in it. Others dismissed the attempt.
Read Charles Dickens’ poetry.
The Writings of Andre Breton
Andre Breton, who is often hailed as one of the founders of surrealism, was a proponent of automatic writing. He used it as a way to create art, in addition to literature. He included the following explanation for automatic writing in his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto.
- Situate yourself in a place that is as propitious as possible to the concentration of the spirit
- Enter the most passive, or receptive state, of which we are capable
- To dispense with the genius, talent, and the genius and talent of others
- Repeatedly say that literature is one of the saddest paths that lead everywhere
- Write quickly, without a preconceived topic, write fast enough not to be able to brake and not to be tempted to read what is written
- Let the first sentence come to mind and so succinctly
- Keep writing. Trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur
- If silence threatens, due to a lack, we need to call “lack of inattention”, here, interrupt
- Following the word put any letter and thus return to the state of arbitrariness.
Why is Automatic Writing Important?
Automatic writing is an interesting and much-debated process that, at the very least, allows writers a way to clear their minds before putting pen to paper. For some, this process is entirely spiritual, allowing them a way to tap into the spirit world and access another plane of thought that’s not normally achievable. For others, automatic writing is more based on reality. It’s an important way to write straight from the subconscious without sifting through one’s thoughts first or attempting to filter out thoughts that might seem unnecessary, incorrect, or strange. It might allow someone who is having trouble getting their words down on paper to do so without being so critical of their writing. As this process moves away from the spirit world and becomes slightly more structured, it becomes what’s known as freewriting.
Yes. Although It’s not as popular as it was in the 19th century, automatic writing is still practiced today. Sometimes it’s used in séances but more commonly in isolated situations in which someone wants to try out the techniques associated with it.
Some believe that automatic writing allows writers to channel the spirit world. This could seem like magic. But, the vast majority of scholars and academics dismiss anything spiritual or magical about the process.
It might reveal different things depending on the writer and whether the reader believes in the practice. For some, it might reveal interesting quotes, aphorisms, puns, or obscenities. For others, the practice might reveal something of the afterlife.
People use automatic writing when they want to reveal something about the afterlife or the spirit world. It’s a practice that has its roots in channeling information from the other side. Some believe spirits are capable of taking over a writer’s hand.
Yes, as with any spiritual or secular practice, there are different kinds of automatic writing. Some people choose to write with pen and paper, while others use a planchette and/or an Ouija board.
Related Literary Terms
- Surrealism: refers to a movement of literature, art, and drama in which creators chose to incorporated dreams and the unconscious and fuse reality and pure imagination.
- Suspense: the anticipation of an outcome, created through hints at what’s to come.
- Synesthesia: synesthesia refers to a technique authors use to blur human senses in their imagery.
- Voice: the specific style an author writes in. This includes the way they use point of view, tone, rhetorical devices, syntax, and more.
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: a phenomenon in which a character predicts something and, by trying to avoid it, makes the thing happen.