Stop Making Sense

• • • How Automatic Writing Can Free Your Mind and Change the World

How long does it take to write a novel? Some books take years; some take decades. Once, while struggling with a novel that I had been writing for four years without reaching the middle, I couldn’t stand the endlessness any longer. I decided to write something easy, unplanned, and above all fast, something I could finish in, say, two weeks. I took a nap, woke up, and started typing. And strangely, 15 days later I had the first draft of a novel, which has since been published (albeit after two years of more or less painful revision). So I think I understand the spirit behind National Novel Writing Month, an event organized by the Oakland, California-based writer Chris Baty. Last November, 140 participants risked repetitive-stress injuries to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Quality was not a concern; the texts were judged only on their length, and the 28 winners were those who completed the assignment. Baty describes the event as a celebration of “truly awful prose,” and most of the 30-day novels probably were awful. All the same, several writers reported feeling liberated by the sheer madness of the task at hand: One accelerated novelist noted that the worse she tried to write, the better her sentences became.

This is not an unusual feeling; it’s certainly a feeling with a history. For at least 200 years, a handful of writers have been urging us to write faster, faster! in the hope that by doing so, we—we writers, and we who haven’t yet written a word—may become geniuses and change the world. The fact that we have not all become geniuses shouldn’t be taken as a sign that their advice is unsound. A look at the history of automatic writing (that is, after all, what this kind of writing is called) suggests that by writing quickly, without thinking at all about what they’re doing, human beings have already accomplished a great deal.

The story begins, as all these stories do, with a German. His name was Karl Ludwig Börne, and in 1823 he published a short essay called “How to Become an Original Writer in Three Days.” The title is a play on the manuals that had just become popular back then, books that promised to teach you Greek or Latin in three days, or the bookseller’s art in only three hours. Börne’s essay is playful, but the method that he sets out in it is both serious and practical: “Take a ream of paper, and write everything that goes through your head for three days, without stopping or correcting yourself. Write what you think of your wife, of the war against the Turk, of Goethe and the trial of Fonk—and after three days you will be astonished at how many new and unheard-of thoughts you have come up with.” It doesn’t matter how many clichés you have in your head, or how many awful novels you’ve enjoyed; at the end of three days you will have used up everything you’ve ever heard, and you will have no choice but to write something that has never been written before.

illustration by Charlene Potts

Börne had no special name for his technique; the term “automatic writing” was coined in the 1850s, to describe the writing practiced by mediums and others during séances. Automatic writing and its cousin “direct writing” (where you placed a stub of pencil inside a closed writing-slate and allowed the spirit to write without human assistance) were reputed to be channels for communication with the Beyond. Relax your inner censor, and you might not simply write about Goethe; the master himself might seize your hand and dictate a definitive account of life beyond the grave. (In fact, such works abounded. The mid 19th century was unique in all of history, in that it saw the publication of new works by Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Milton, and others. What a marvelous time it must have been, if only you believed in ghosts! No one would ever write her last book; you would never turn the last page of a novel and know that there would be no more.)

In a sense, of course, there had always been automatic writers, automatic poets. Homer asked the Muse to “sing in him,” and Virgil, a bit self-consciously, did the same; medieval writers got their words from God, or from the Devil if the words weren’t quite right. No one called this kind of writing automatic, however. If they had a special name for it at all, they might have called it “inspired” (or “possessed”). Thus was the mystery of writing maintained: You could invoke the Muse but she did not always come; God very occasionally told you what to write; more often he told you to shut up, if he told you anything at all. Then, in 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse invented the first practical electric telegraph and a code for transmitting messages over lengths of wire. The Beyond, which had formerly been the domain of priests, lunatics, and corpses, must have seemed a little closer to the common man, and a little more easily understood. Four years later, two sisters named Margaret and Kate Fox received a communication from the spirit world in the form of tapping noises. Reports of their discovery, and of the system by which they exchanged information with the dead (a code in which one knock meant “yes,” two knocks meant “no,” and letters of the alphabet were represented by a number of knocks—one for a and 26 for z, which explains why there were more posthumous messages from Aristotle than from Xenophon) sparked an international fad for mediumship. When the language of typtography (i.e., knocking noises) became too cumbersome, mediums took up their pens. So writing lost its mystery: The mediums had made literary creation automatic, mechanical, understandable, and largely understood. Out with the Muse, and in with the manual.

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