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Self-Knowledge • Behaviours

Why We Should Practice Automatic Writing

Usually, when we set out to write, sounding coherent and polished are our central priorities. We may think hard before setting anything down, we keep an eye on spelling, we may go back and correct words that feel not entirely right, we may delete a paragraph or two – all in the hope of eventually reaching a point where what we have articulated seems accurately to reflect what we truly think. 

But there is another philosophy of writing at large, this one with a very different thesis as to what ‘good’ writing might be like. While also believing that the ultimate ambition of writing should be the expression of our genuine thoughts, this technique proposes that our best chances of reaching such thoughts lies in making every effort not to think too much, not to agonise about every word, not to go back and correct anything – and instead, just to write down everything that comes into our minds the very moment it does so, without any interest in seeming logical, elegant, clever or even very sane.

Painting by Cy Twombly of a scribble on a blackboard.
Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1971

This approach, known as ‘automatic writing’, asks us to begin by picking an important emotional topic – for example, ‘My Mother’, ‘My Father’, ‘My Partner’ or ‘What I Really Want’ – and then writing as fast as we possibly can, for two minutes straight, without a single pause, which can feel like a very exhausting and peculiar requirement indeed.

When we stand back and read what has tumbled out of us, our feelings about our parents, partners or desires may emerge as very different from what we had presumed. We might find that we hate where we had expected love; or love where we had imagined disdain. We might discover layers of longing, envy, rage or sadness that we had kept at bay day to day in the name of appearing that most stultifying and dangerous of things: normal. 

The value of the exercise lies precisely in the extent to which our automatic writing introduces us to feelings that are odds with those we ordinarily dare to entertain. Much of what we are is damned up inside us by scruples, by a fear of hurting others, by an embarrassment as to what we want when it departs from the expected path. Yet this neglect of our true selves is also what powers our anxiety, irritability, insomnia and depression, all of these species of revenge for the real thoughts we have been so careful not to allow into our conscious minds.

Automatic writing will not make us into ‘great’ writers; but it will do something far more useful still: it will liberate us from some of the insincerities that are making us more troubled and restless than we should be. Our chaotic intense two-minute essays will help us to meet the person we have been, but were too scared to get to know, all along. 

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