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When the Work Writes Itself: Nurturing the Automatic Writer

[1]Sometimes I can physically remember what it was like, early on in my career – what it actually felt like in my body — to write in those early days. The wiring was just starting to stitch my mind to my hands to the page to the structure of a story to its characters’ inner worlds – and mainly how gawky I was. Writing as a tiptoe, then galumphing, how unsteady I was word-by-word, how much of it was an intellectual practice, so self-aware.

But even then, there were those moments when there was a tidal momentum that carried me from one word to the next and something was written without my full awareness. Those moments were addictive. I knew that they were essential. At first, it was words that sometimes took hold with their own momentum. Then I learned how voice could ground me in those moments and take over. And, finally, that flexibility was something I came to rely on.

There are still moments of what I call “making it up.” I talk to my students about this feeling, trying to put it into words. Of course, we’re always “making it up,” as writers of fiction – and too as poets and memoirists (as rebuilding memory and expressing it is an re-imaginative act). But I hate these moments when I feel myself writing. Sometimes they last just a few minutes until I find a way in to the work. Other times, the feeling endures – usually when there’s something new about what I’m writing, something I haven’t encountered before – it feels like I’m out of my depth, at sea. This is ultimately a good thing. I’m teaching myself something – new wiring is being formed.

I’m demanding about generating pages when teaching emerging writers – fiction, poetry, nonfiction and screenplays. The practice of writing pages helps you create pages, but also leads to those glorious moments when the work begins to write itself.

In sports – stay with me non-sports types, trust me – good coaches always make sure that their players have endurance because that conditioning is in their control. They can’t, for example, teach hunger for goals or ambition and drive. But like workshop leaders, they can help to create an atmosphere of taking risks and encouraging ambitious moves.

Can a good coach breakdown skill sets? Yes, and so can a good workshop leader – an exercise on dialogue, another solely on surface tension, another on subtext. But can they teach what’s perceived as athletic clairvoyance and split-second intuition? No. Those moments that seem like clairvoyance – on the playing field and on the page – you know what I mean, right? You’re writing without really thinking about writing. Split-second decisions are happening word by word and you’re not conscious of those thoughts. It’s as if your mind is fully wired to your fingers at the keyboard just as the athlete’s body is wired to the ball, the field of play, the defense…

How does this wiring happen? It’s not God-given alone for either the writer or the athlete. What you’re actually seeing as a fan or a reader is the result of hours drilled into a craft. This might seem obvious to many of you. But for so many reasons, we believe athletes are born athletic and writers are born creative. What’s talent without time spent tending to that talent? It’s typical. It’s the rule. But, again, stick with me on this athlete/writer comparison.

Here’s a quote from Tracy Steven Peal [2], a speed coach and poet.

“I am very privy to the highly programmable nervous system of elite players. What is logically deemed as athletic clairvoyance, is actually a mapping, let’s say habitual patterning, that’s actually rehearsed over and over and over again on the field of play. What the spectator is seeing is actually the resultant – what makes it special and unique, is how individual athletes process this sensory information and know how to act (react is too late)… [An athlete can have] this anticipatory knack, which is more seamlessly hard-wired into his consciousness, his being. Great athletes create on the fly, sifting through the myriad of options (Bernstein’s degrees of freedom, I suppose), to find the most logical solution to the competitive matrix. It truly speaks of inspiration, perception, neuroplasticity, skill acquisition, talent, fascial networking and spatial awareness – all in a matter of milliseconds.”

What the writer is doing when at the page is this mapping, this habitual patterning. The hope is that you are going to find more and more stretches of time in which your work seems to be writing itself. So many processes that are intellectual and very conscious – and sometimes self-conscious – when you’re at the early stages of your craft are going to become unconscious. Like when you first learned to walk, it was a very conscious effort that has become unconsciously wired now.

That said, writing for writing’s sake – just to drill in the hours – shouldn’t be blind practice. As Peal would remind us, drilling in bad practices only reinforces bad habits. Having a good reader, someone trusted and smart, with a keen eye is crucial. You need to be practicing the right moves or else you’re doubling down, making bad habits worse – florid prose, for example, or great banter with no stakes.

While creating pages at an ambitious rate, you’re also practicing strategies that help you block out distraction and get you to the page. You’re figuring out how to carve out time, to refresh and recharge, and then returning to the page. Perhaps you’re also learning how to move between projects. Maybe you’re teaching the people in your life that this discipline is important to you and that it will require some understanding and support on their part. In this way, you’re hopefully working toward a sustainable practice.

But, again, what’s really key is this shift – skill after skill – from the very conscious effort to all of these unconscious moves. As your endurance and understanding of your process improves, the work is also hopefully getting more automatic moment to moment. Put these two trajectories together and your payoffs start to compound.

Of course, as I mentioned above, many of these skills are transferrable, project to project, but the truth is that each project has its own set of issues and teaches you how to write it. This work will always humble you.

There should be a positive kickback of endorphins as you see yourself taking great strides on the page, getting better at your craft. But what you also should have faith in is what you can’t see – all of that wiring deep within your brain.

WU’ers: What is your experience with automatic writing? Do these moments come regularly to you, seldomly, or not at all? What, if anything, do you do to nurture/encourage automatic writing? And if it is a part of writing life, how would you describe it – how does it feel to you?

About Julianna Baggott [3]

Julianna Baggott [4] is the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of over twenty books. Her novels Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders and Pure were New York Times Notable Books. She writes under her own name and pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode — most notably, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, and on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now. She’s the creator of a six-week Jumpstart program to get writers generating new material [5] and Efficient Creativity: The Six-Week Audio Series; listen to the first episode is available, for free, on SoundCloud. [6] Learn more about Julianna and her books on her website [4].