I facilitate a monthly hypnosis workshop for writers. See Hypnosis for Writers—workshop overview. The first session focused on automatic writing, a technique the surrealist poets of the 1920s used to access original imagery from the subconscious. Below are my notes, the hypnosis script I wrote for the workshop, and the materials I shared with the group.
How many of you remember at least some of your dreams? And how many of you have had strange dreams?
Dreams are interesting in so many ways—they reflect our hopes and fears, they’re psychological, and archetypal, but one of my primary fascinations with dreams is how creative they are. We go to sleep and so effortlessly produce vivid, and sometimes wild, images of places we’ve never been, people we’ve never seen. We take our personal experiences and rearrange them into new stories and perspectives.
The French symbolist poet, Saint-Pol-Roux (1861-1940) had a notice posted on the door of his manor house every evening before he went to sleep, which read: THE POET IS WORKING. (Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism”)
If only we could craft images and symbols and metaphors in our writing as easily as we do in our sleep!
Well we can.
Of course we can borrow material from our dreams for our writing, which I highly recommend, but we can also go right to the source any time we want. The source, of course, is the subconscious mind. It is the subconscious that serves up our dreams, and it has a lot of material to work with. It is a storehouse for all of our memories and experiences—everything that we have ever seen, tasted, felt, heard, smelt, is all stored in there. Unlike the conscious mind, which is analytical and critical, the subconscious mind is emotional and free from censorship—it gives our dreams a certain kind of freedom to be creative, and it can give our writing that same sense of freedom as well.
The surrealist painters and writers of the 1920s reveled in this. In addition to being inspired by their dreams, they developed techniques to access material from the subconscious. (See Breton’s description of automatic writing and examples of surrealist language games below.)
Surrealism defined by The Columbia Encyclopedia:
Surrealism – literary and art movement influenced by Freudianism and dedicated to the expression of imagination as revealed in dreams, free of the conscious control of reason and free of convention. The movement was founded (1924) in Paris by André Breton, with his Manifeste du surréalisme, but its ancestry is traced to the French poets Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, and to the Italian painter, Giorgio de Chirico….
In 1924, André Breton defines surrealism in his “Manifesto of Surrealism:”
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or more concern.
ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life. The following have performed acts of ABSOLUTE SURREALISM: Messrs. Aragon, Baron, Boiffard, Breton, Carrive, Crevel, Delteil, Desnos, Eluard, Gérard, Limbour, Malkine, Morise, Naville, Noll, Péret, Picon, Soupault, Vitrac.
Breton, André. “Manifesto of Surrealism.” Manifestoes of Surrealism. Trans. Seaver, Richard and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1972. 26.
Breton describes automatic writing in his “Manifesto of Surrealism:”
“Secrets of the Magical Surrealist Art: Written Surrealist composition or first and last draft”
After you have settled yourself in a place as favorable as possible to the concentration of your mind upon itself, have writing materials brought to you. 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. The first sentence will come spontaneously, so compelling is the truth that with every passing second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness which is only crying out to be heard. It is somewhat of a problem to form an opinion about the next sentence; it doubtless partakes both of our conscious activity and of the other, if one agrees that the fact of having written the first entails a minimum of perception. This should be of no importance to you, however; to a large extent, this is what is most interesting and intriguing about the Surrealist game. The fact still remains that punctuation no doubt resists the absolute continuity of the flow with which we are concerned, although it may seem as necessary as the arrangement of knots in a vibrating cord. Go on as long as you like. Put your trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur. If silence threatens to settle in if you should ever happen to make a mistake—a mistake, perhaps due to carelessness—break off without hesitation with an overly clear line. Following a word the origin of which seems suspicious to you, place any letter whatsoever, the letter “l” for example, always the letter “l,” and bring the arbitrary back by making this letter the first of the following word.
Breton, André. “Manifesto of Surrealism.” Manifestoes of Surrealism. Trans. Seaver, Richard and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1972. 29-30.
Automatic writing in trance:
Hypnosis allows us to bypass the critical factor of the conscious mind and freely interact with the subconscious mind, so entering a trance state is a wonderful way to enhance the automatic writing experience.
During the workshop, I guided participants into the trance state, used guided imagery to help them release blocks and get in touch with the inner writer, and then gave suggestions to initiate a flow of random, fresh images, which they could then set to paper. Here is a Word doc of the script I used: Script for Automatic Writing.
Following the trance state:
After participants emerged from the trance state, I gave them time to silently review what they had written and encouraged them to circle or underline the images that were most interesting to them. Everyone had the opportunity to share an image or two and talk about the experience. They were amazed by how uncensored their writing was.
In preparation for the workshop, I made a recording of the script that I wrote so that I could anticipate what the participants might experience. Being a bit nervous about my first workshop, I found it hard to relax and let go of my conscious mind, which is by nature so critical. As a result, the images didn’t flow as freely as I would have liked while I was in the trance state. It wasn’t until I took a break and was standing at the kitchen counter making coffee that a stream of words spontaneously came to me. I ran to my laptop and let it flow. Here is the beginning of what I wrote:
The smallest bit of red speaks to itself in a coarse manner,
and the cows nearby whisper,
prodding the clanking of porcelain teaspoons and gold bracelets.
Dawn is just two days away,
and arrogance squeezes itself out of its tube,
dressed as a school child in cackling breeches.
Pumice foams from his mouth.
Write a surrealistic autobiographical poem using poetry strips:
Here is a really fun exercise that I’ve used in the high school English classes that I’ve taught. It doesn’t require going into a state of hypnosis.
Poetry Strips Worksheet (Word doc)
Poetry Strips (Word doc)
Links to surrealist art:
VirtualDali (see paintings 1928-1940)
Links to surrealist poetry:
Surrealist language games:
Surrealist Language Games of the 1920s (Word doc) Great for a party or a class!
A Book of Surrealist Games by Alastair Brotchie
The Surrealism Server (A fun site! Be sure to check out the Surrealist Compliment Generator)