Friday, February 7, 2020

Spontaneity, Wit, Improvisation, and Automatic Writing: How to Write Better Than Your Conscious Mind

When a person is about to say something funny during a conversation, s/he starts to speak without forming an idea of what words to use. A witty comment usually begins with only a vague impulse that the moment and the context are ripe for humor. This is an intuitive feeling, and it’s the act of launching into the conversation that helps the speaker to form specific words that make people laugh.

Similarly, when a jazz musician is about to start a solo, I don’t think that person has a clear idea what s/he is going to play. It’s just a willingness to jump in and get into the groove the band has set in motion that provides the impulse for that riff.

Automatic writing is also like that. Writers in the surrealist movement in the early 1920s invented automatic writing—André Breton described the process this way in his “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924):

Portraits of André Breton by Man Ray
Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can. Forget about your genius, your talents, and the talents of everyone else. Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything. Write quickly, without any preconceived subject, fast enough so that you will not remember what you’re writing and be tempted to reread what you have written.

In other words, write faster than you can edit with your rational mind, and the results will outpace anything you thought you could create.

The surrealist group practicing automatic writing in the 1920s
The human mind is far more brilliant than our conscious mind. One of the challenges of writing is to let go of our thoughts so that we can actually think with our deeper psyche. Not with the reptilian brain, but with the brain powered by what Federico García Lorca described as the duende, the mischievous sprite that rises from the raw energy of the Earth.

Of course, this dynamic often applies more to poetry than to prose. Fiction and nonfiction writers have to plan, outline, create structure. But poetry thrives on this sort of spontaneous fabrication, taking flight from a platform that is itself already airborne. Or, to paraphrase André Breton, “Trust in the inexhaustible fountain of whispers.”


I don’t mean to suggest that all spontaneous writing is great. Some of it can be downright foolish. But I would say that spontaneity is the source of much of the best and most unexpected writing.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

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