John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.
Automatic writing is a specific term that is quite distinct from “easy writing” or “stream of consciousness”, which could both be described as “going with the flow”. Automatic writing is normally understood to be one of the manifestations of spiritualism, and should therefore first be considered on that basis.
Automatic writing is supposedly the words of a deceased person being conveyed through the hands of a person who is in a trance-like state and is unaware of what they are doing. On coming out of their trance they will find that they have written words that are not their own, and may be in a completely different style to how they would usually write. They may even be in a different language, possibly one that is unknown to them, and in different handwriting.
At least, that is what we are expected to believe. How much credence one gives to such claims depends on one’s views of mediums and their claims to communicate with the “other side”. Most people would be happier to think of such writings as being the product of the unconscious mind of the writer, just as most people prefer to think of the “voices” that some people claim to hear as coming from inside their brains rather than from God, Satan, or some other supernatural being.
One of the most celebrated automatic writers was Helene Smith, or Catherine Elise Muller, to use her real name. Helene was from Geneva, Switzerland, and was born in about 1863. She claimed to be a medium, and produced automatic writing in Arabic. She was also convinced that she was a reincarnation of Marie Antoinette, the executed Queen of Louis XVI. However, her most remarkable claim was that she had been transported to Mars in trances, and was able to write in the Martian language. Experts who investigated her found that about 98% of her “Martian” words were from known “Earth” languages, and, not surprisingly, many of them were French, which was Helene’s native language.
Although Helene’s claims were clearly bogus, she had a considerable influence on the Surrealist movement, some of whose exponents claimed to be automatic writers, as well as automatic drawers and painters.
Another supposed automatic writer was England’s Rosemary Brown, who, in 1964 claimed to have been introduced by the spirit of Franz Liszt to a number of other great, and very dead, composers who wanted to dictate new music through her. These included Bach, Brahms, Mozart, Debussy and Rachmaninov. She gave more than 400 piano recitals of supposedly new compositions by these people, but then there have been plenty of musicians who have been able to improvise “in the style of” great composers, but did not claim to be in spirit communication with them.
Automatic writing has also been claimed in the case of a number of religious texts. For example, the Koran is supposed to have been written by the Prophet Mohammed at the direct inspiration of Allah. Indeed, some traditionalists claim that Mohammed could not read or write, so the words of the Koran were pure revelation, with the Prophet acting as Allah’s mouthpiece. Similar claims have been made for Biblical authorship, so that the Bible is literally the “word of God” uttered through Moses and a host of other writers. Some people hold that the Book of Mormon was the result of the automatic writing of Joseph Smith.
However, if one tries to divorce automatic writing from having a supernatural basis, one can simply see it as something that happens when the person is not conscious of what they are doing, for whatever reason. Psychoanalysts have tried to encourage patients to write or draw under hypnosis, as a way of unlocking the subconscious.
Sometimes, writings of a very unusual nature have been produced under drug-induced states of mind. A famous instance was that of the English poet, and friend of Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was under the influence of opium when he wrote “Kubla Khan”, although his claim was that the lines came to him while he was asleep and he simply wrote them out from memory when he awoke. A knock at the door interrupted the process, and he could write no more, which is why the poem was never completed.
More recently, many songs from the 1960s and thereabouts may have lyrics that were automatically written, thanks to the influence of LSD; hence the Beatles classic “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (although this connection was denied at the time and since).
Connection With Dreaming
We all dream, whether or not our dreams have been induced by mind-enhancing substances. Sometimes our dreams are more coherent than at other times, and sometimes we could wake up and write down words that have come to us in our dreams. However, everything we dream has to come from elements of our experience, in some shape or form, and very often pieces of past experience are thrown together haphazardly in dreams, so that we may think that we have dreamt something that is completely new, or even that it is a vision vouchsafed to us from an outside source.
Perhaps we should regard automatic writing in the same light, namely that our brains remain active at all times, whether or not we are conscious, and the manifestation of that unconscious activity can take various forms, automatic writing being one of them in certain individuals. However, every word that the automatic writer writes has come from within themselves, even if they have no recollection of having used it or heard it before. Just as with dreams, the brain stores up vast quantities of information, and may release it in ways that we would never suspect ourselves of being capable.
William Kovacic from Pleasant Gap, PA on July 10, 2017:
Of course, Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven and others were supposedly written by automatic writing.
Tim Mitchell from Escondido, CA on June 22, 2017:
Great article, John. As I reflected while reading I thought of speaking in tongues. They both seem to have similar connections with religion and spirituality, yet may be explained by psychology. It also awakened thoughts of where inspiration itself comes from. Much to ponder.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on June 22, 2017:
Thank you for sharing this, John. I had heard a little about automatic writing but you clarified it here. Very interesting.