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.

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.

Automatic writing wasa sort of manual for the psychologists of the 1880s and ‘90s. Given the enormous number of fatuous communications signed by the most reputable ghosts of history, it seemed unlikely that the mediums’ messages all came from the Beyond. Some of them, if not all, must have been unwittingly invented by the mediums themselves. Among the investigators who studied automatic writing in the hope that it would reveal the workings of the mind were William James, the French psychologist Pierre Janet, and the British team of F.W. Myers and Edmund Gurney, who, undiscouraged by what they discovered, would go on to found the Society for Psychical Research. Each of them came to more or less the same conclusion: Automatic writing was produced by a part of the mind of which the writer had no awareness. Myers called it the “co-conscious”; Janet called it “mental automatism,” and James, prudently, called it nothing at all. A decade later Freud would call it the unconscious, and the name would stick. The study of mediums and other automatic writers was to have an enormous influence on the not-yet-born field of psychoanalysis; indeed, Freud’s technique of free association is, in a sense, nothing more than automatic talking. At the same time, automatic writing pointed another group of psychologists in a different direction: The idea that the mind, or at least part of it, worked like a machine, suggested that it could be studied with the same objectivity as chemical compounds or moving bodies. The study of mental automatism, as manifested in writing (and, to be fair, in other behaviors as well), inspired the psychometric experiments of Fechner and Helmholtz, which were in turn the foundation of the modern discipline of experimental psychology.

Among the early experimentalists, we ought to note, was one of James’s most brilliant students, a Harvard undergraduate named Gertrude Stein. Together with a graduate student named Leon Solomons, Stein conducted experiments on “normal motor automatism,” the ability of the nervous system to operate without conscious control. Writing was one of the activities they studied: Stein put her arm in a sling and hid it from her view with a screen; Solomons distracted her while her writing hand went about its business. The results sound like . . . well, like Stein: “Hence there is no possible way of avoiding what I have spoken of, and if this is not believed by the people of whom you have spoken, then it is not possible to prevent the people of whom you have spoken of so glibly.” Stein’s literary work was not, as far as we know, automatically written, but the influence of automatic writing on her rhythm and syntax is unmistakable—so much so that B.F. Skinner jokingly argued that she could not claim to be the author of Tender Buttons, as it had so clearly been produced by forces more or less beyond her control.

Stein’s experiments notwithstanding, automatic writing didn’t really connect with literature—at least, not in the way Börne had suggested—until the 1920s, when the French Surrealists, with an admirable nostalgia for the discredited practices of the last century, revived the mediums’ old technique. (If this assertion vexes you, consider that Stein would doubtless have scoffed at the notion that what she was doing was effortless, or without control.) André Breton, who wrote the manifestos to which the other Surrealists affixed their names, had studied Freud and was a partisan of psychoanalysis. He believed that automatic writing had, in addition to its kitsch value, the virtue of revealing the “real mechanism of thought,” and also of uniting the conscious and unconscious minds. The effect of this union would, he predicted, be revolutionary: All distinctions, as between perception and representation, subject and object, waking and sleep, sanity and madness, would collapse, and the subject would be freed from what the bourgeoisie, for their own nefarious ends, called “reality.” Breton hoped for a revolution that would be more than artistic: If everyone liberated their minds by means of automatism, the result might be political change, the collapse of the State, the institution of some real and meaningful communication between minds. Of course this never happened, nor did Breton do much to bring it about. Having achieved literary fame, he seems to have felt no particular compulsion to jeopardize it by inciting a riot.

However feckless and French Breton’s protestations may have been, his methods have had—or could have—a real effect on the world. The works that he and his collaborators Philippe Soupault and Paul Éluard produced automatically are, for many people, boring and unreadable—nothing but sentences like “That’s what they call the uncovered place where the water is made up of all those peasants’ movements” and “The grass at night gulps down a great number of white pebbles and talks more loudly than the echoing caves,” one after another. If you can let go of your expectation that the text will tell a story in the same way that, say, Scott Turow tells a story, though, the sentences take on something almost like beauty. Your mind wants so hard to make sense of things that you end up finding patterns and connections even in the most haphazard and incongruous collection of poetic enigmas, and at the end of the day you’re left with a satisfaction incomparably greater than the discovery that his wife did it: You know that his wife, or your wife, if you prefer, did Goethe while the Turks waged war at Fonk’s trial. By breaking the world up and jumbling it together, you have seen things in a new way.

This may not be the liberation experienced by the writers of the 30-day novel, but it is a kindred feeling. To discover that you make more sense when you don’t try so hard to make sense, or when you try not to make sense at all, is a particularly keen joy, at least for a writer. It may be the pleasure of ceasing to bang your head against a wall; if you don’t spend a great deal of time writing slowly and painfully, then quick and effortless writing won’t be much of a release. (It may also be that your slow, painful, and ostensibly fruitless effort is rewarded when you finally let go—Breton, Soupault, and Éluard had certainly worked at writing before they experimented with automatism, and this may explain why their texts are interesting, while the great majority of automatically produced writing is deadly dull.)

For those who seek keener, or stranger thrills, the computer offers writing so fast that the 30-day novel seems painstaking by comparison. Consider the following sentence from Mark Pilgrim’s Kant Generator Pro, a free application for the Macintosh: “What we have alone been able to show is that, in particular, metaphysics depends on our a priori concepts, but our judgments exclude the possibility of the Transcendental Deduction.” The program is capable of producing an almost infinite number of equally Kantian sentences; or by changing software modules, it can generate Husserl, thank-you notes, and even excuses, in seconds, to the accompaniment of cheerful electronic music. With a little effort, you can program the Generator to reproduce any style, including, especially, perhaps, your own. I’m pleased to say that there is now a LaFarge Generator, which draws on this and other articles I’ve written for the Voiceto produce new material. For example:

Most Americans complained that a universal alphabet had been developed by the mediums of the mid 19th century. Further observation suggested that Börne, a scientist by temperament, meant that the practical phrenologists studied the new electric lamps on the Champs-Élysées. J. Edgar Coover, an Oakland, California-based writer, hypothesized that the history of public education in America was his letter; fortunately, however, the humans had been built by mediums and others.

This is immortality of a sort: endless if somewhat unvaried reproducibility. With a few modifications, the Generator could produce a novel in half an hour—but the delight of the Generator is not in its speed; it’s in seeing my words disjoined and reconfigured, making no sense but at the same time some sense after all.

Paul LaFarge is the author of the novelsThe Artist of the Missing (winner of the 1999 California Book Award) andHaussmann, or the Distinction (forthcoming in September from FSG).

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