One of my writing practices centers around the art of zoning in and zeroing out. It consists first of putting myself in the zone of spontaneous writing, where I push the pen into unplotted territory, and second, of zeroing out—quieting the internal critic. The concept is not original. It’s been around for years and, depending on who you listen to, is alternately called free, automatic, or spontaneous writing. I’ve been doing this every Wednesday night for 12 years with my writing group—though these days, catching all four weeks in any given month is a challenge. The core members of the group have belonged for nearly as long, if not longer. This shared, ongoing experience fosters the zeroing—the turning down of mental chatter to near-zero—as well as comfort. Comfort with each other and the process, even the chairs we sit in. Our process is simple:
1) Pull a prompt from a short story or poem, or words from the dictionary;
2) Write for roughly 40 minutes;
3) Read out loud what we wrote.
Long ago I decided this wasn’t suitable to writing poems. I found I spent too much time in a kind of woolgathering which didn’t leave enough time to weave the threads. My next attempts were self-conscious personal essays. It wasn’t until I decided to try short stories that I hit my stride. Now, my typical yield for 40 minutes of in-the-zone writing is 500 words of short fiction featuring a few characters, one or two scenes, more internal narration than dialogue and (surprise! surprise!) close attention to diction, sonics, and rhythm. These last three are, of course, elements of poetry, and that’s where a transformation has occurred. My free-writing attempts at fiction have freed up my approach to poetry. On Wednesday nights I can trust that if I throw myself off the cliff without a parachute, I will land safely, sometimes magically (though not always without a bump) on the other side of a short story. And now when I sit down to write poetry with the blank screen staring at me—I prefer the computer when composing poems—and no more than a scrap of an idea, what happens (after much more than 40 minutes) is often so surprising that it’s as if someone else were doing the writing.
Author Kristin Prevallet, in her slender but stimulating book, Trance Poetics (Wide Reality books, 2013), speaks of automatic writing as the need to “…disassociate [the] conscious mind (the part…that plans, chatters, distracts, and often interrupts) from [the] unconscious mind (the part…that loses track of time, gets into a flow zone, and enacts [the] inner auto-pilot.” Prevallet, who is also a poet, performer, and hypnotherapist, compares the conscious and unconscious mind to a train running on two tracks—one in a tunnel and one above ground—that, with practice, can be distracted. “The conscious mind…can go ahead thinking about one thing, while the unconscious mind sets off on a completely different course….”
In the early years of the writing group, members took turns preparing and presenting prompts that were a smorgasbord of choices —suggested opening lines, scenes, metaphorical themes, ingredient words. This heavy helping of prompts fortified me for the uncertain ride ahead. The ingredient words often acted like stepping stones or, depending on the slope the piece was on, slalom gates that moved me through unfolding terrain. These days, I no longer feel the need to be helped by all this hemming in. With our lean, spontaneously generated prompts I feel a kind of reversal of Frost’s riding loose in the harness. There’s a freedom in having very little to guide me. Frost is well-known for saying, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” He also said, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” When I zone in and zero out, I love how the lump in my throat tells me that home lies ahead in the poem I’m about to write.
—Jane Poirier Hart, WROB Poetry Fellow