Spirit Writing

What writing feels like, once in a while

I was working on the new book yesterday, which has been a lumpy road so far. My lead character Cassie was real to me, a character I understood in a place I understood, but my understanding of her was like reading the psychiatrist’s notes after the session, thin and summarized. I shifted it all about three weeks ago from third person to first person narration, and that helped her speak in ways that she hadn’t been able to when I was acting as her narrative interpreter. Better, but still not fully present.

Yesterday, though… yesterday was the first day that I actually heard her. I heard her frustration at having worked so hard and so well and achieving so little. Heard her embarrassment at going home to yet another family dinner and having her parents and sister treat her as a failure. She told me about her first boyfriend—not the dopey Mike she was with at the beginning of this story, but Tracy, the boy who’d made her feel special for the first three semesters of college and then dumped her as he was about to graduate, for a girl back home who was at his own economic and social level.

There are days when writing feels like a spiritualist exercise. You spend days and days setting the scene, laying out the candles and asking the spirits to arrive. And they don’t. And they don’t. And then, as you’ve just about given it up, they do.

There’s a paranormal tradition in many cultures that is sometimes called fuji or fu chi, planchette writing, or in English most often, spirit writing. As with any other form of seance, one pledges respect to those not present, and makes room for them to speak. In spirit writing, the visitor appears not through voice or through a Ouija board or knocking over a bottle, but through text. The medium, having made himself present, merely takes dictation from the other side. William Burroughs claims to have written Naked Lunch that way, and said that it was a miserable experience, his subconscious taken over by a “hostile entity.”

Psychology researchers have said that spirit writing may be a product of what they call “dissociative states,” in which our perception of the world is unlinked from our identity. But that just strikes me as a pejorative term for perhaps the best experiences of our lives, the moments that Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. When we are in a flow state, we are not emotionally present or involved; the work does us, in a way. If we worry about our outcomes or our capability or our status or embarrassment, we can’t reach flow at all; flow only comes in those dissociative moments when we can leave ourselves aside and let the work itself take primacy.

That’s what yesterday was, finally. I stepped aside and let Cassie use my keyboard.