Automatic Fiction

I wanted to talk a bit about the term ‘automatic fiction’, which I sometimes use to describe my flash pieces, because I think it is easily confused with other kinds of writing.

The first thing people usually think of is ‘automatic writing‘, which infers the channeling of spirits. This would be done as part of a seance-like ritual, with the writer not even being conscious of making the pen move.

Then we move to free writing, which is much closer to what I do. In free writing, the writer commits to paper (or screen) whatever comes into their head in a continuous flow, without concern for convention, mechanic or rhetoric. This is a great way to push through a mental block or to see where an idea might be headed. I do this a lot using my journal, either as a stream of consciousness or as a progression of thoughts on a topic, and I believe it’s common among writers.

What is different about automatic fiction, then, is the intention. I don’t just write whatever comes into my head to free myself up, but instead approach with the desire to uncover an image or a story; sometimes with a specific theme as a catalyst. I clear my mind of surface concerns beforehand, either using the free writing technique or meditation, so that I can dig deeper to find ‘unconscious’ content. Then I allow the flow to take me. It’s a bit like the way we have different types of dreams: those that seem to process the events of the day, those that play out like movies or legends, and those that seem to contain highly symbolic messages. I suppose I’m trying to recreate the latter two dream types while awake. I’m looking for the raw myth and metaphor that lives at the core of being a person, devoid of the sense-making rational mind that always overlays it sooner or later. For that reason I tend to write for a short session and apply only a very light edit before presenting it.

Anna Kavan was searching for something similar throughout her novels and shorts, most prominently in Sleep Has His House which is presented as a sequence of dreams alongside corresponding waking events in the life of the character to aid their interpretation. She wrote in what she called ‘night-time’ language: surreal, symbolic and seemingly irrational. That strange, dreamlike logic we’re all familiar with…

One problem with this, I suppose, is that other people’s dreams just aren’t that interesting. We’ve all switched off when someone begins to tell us about ‘this really weird dream’ they had the night before (what dream isn’t weird, anyway?). Different minds hold different keys based on their own experiences and personal symbol systems, and therefore hold varying degrees of interest from one person to the next. That is part of the appeal of writing in this way, to me, to see how others interpret them. But beyond that, I do believe that there are many symbols and archetypes that we share, derived from our culture if not from a Jungian collective unconscious. To tap into those things as a writer would be a great achievement. Franz Kafka and JG Ballard are two writers I believe managed it, as well as Anna Kavan herself. As for me, I will continue to write these flash pieces and see how I progress from there.

I sometimes wonder whether there is an inferred sense of automatic fiction being ‘easy’, and on the face of it I suppose it is. As with abstract art, I say to anyone who scoffs: if you could do it, why don’t you? And in that subjectivity – that mode of choice – lies the value in the artform. Besides, you should do it. Go on: experiment, explore. See what you can come up with.

I almost forgot to mention – I use this same method for the paintings in my Unconscious Notions series (one such image above). I think the words and the images together create something quite unique, so perhaps I’ll put together a little chapbook to compile them in the near future. For now, if you’d like to see some examples of my automatic fiction, several parts of my Emanations series is available on Orchid’s Lantern here. They were all written using the method described above and without forethought. Thanks for reading!

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