Writing Exercise of the Month: Bibliomancy as a Random Input Strategy for Writer’s Block


Alchemical image in the public domain (Wikipedia Commons)

Bibliomancy is an old oracular practice using passages of texts at random to divine something.

Random Input (see here) is a general creativity technique of seeking random images, words, etc. as sparks to solve creative problems.

Why not combine these ideas as a writer’s aid? I’m a great believer in random input and intrigued by the idea of bibliomancy, so it seems like a fun writing exercise to try.

Here’s the situation: I’ve been working off and on with this story of mine about a sort of ugly duckling character and am stuck regarding how to proceed. If I had to describe the difficulties behind this stuck-ness, I would say that: 1. I’m not sure what he wants. He is not, as I’ve written him so far, overly upset by his condition—maybe I’ve written myself into a hole here?; and 2. I want to incorporate a kind of bizarre element, as I think it will make the story fresh, and would keep it truer to the dream inspiration on which the story is based, but I’m unsure of exactly how to do so effectively. O.K., I’m going to go off to my bookshelf to pick three books at random, and from each book I will then pick one passage at random that will tell me something about these difficulties, or others I’m not aware of right now. (I know it’s not real time as you’re reading this, but let’s pretend.) Somewhat arbitrarily, I’ll say that:

  1. The first passage will give me insight about why the story is stuck.
  2. The second passage will give me clues about what is most important about my story.
  3. The third passage will give hints as to how to proceed.

Note: I’m totally making this up right now, but have in mind how oracles like the Tarot, runes, etc. are supposed to operate as “spreads.” Ready? Here I go. (Note to reader: imagine minutes passing while anticipatory clock is ticking.)

Here we are:

1. From Alchemy by Marie-Louise von Franz: “Thus you would interpret sulphur as drivenness, a state of being driven. It would not be right to speak of the drive itself; it is rather the state or quality of being driven or overwhelmed. If you look at it from a certain religious angle, that would naturally be the devil… Sulphur is the active part of the psyche, the part which has a definite goal…To get to the bottom of someone’s problem it is necessary first to find the make-up of such drives. We all have them in us and until we bring them up and face them, we have a hidden corner where they live autonomously.” (pp. 126-127)

2. From Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us by John Rowan: “. . . the ‘totalitarian ego,’ characterized by egocentricity, beneffectance (the tendency for self to be perceived as effective in achieving desirable ends while avoiding undesirable ones), and cognitive conservatism.” (p. 177)

3. From The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss: “In his later years, Mark Twain wrote of journeys into nanoworlds, such as a world inside a stone, or a society of microbes inside a human cell…In August 1898, Mark Twain noted a dream that gave him the idea for one of his most intriguing later stories…In ‘The Great Dark,’ he creates a world inside a drop of water on a glass slide under a microscope. The traveler gets inside it, with an appropriate ship and crew, with the aid of a person identified as the Superintendent of Dreams, who appears by his side while he is musing on a sofa. Once inside the waterworld, it becomes hard to know whether it is this world or the one with the sofa that is real; the traveler’s shipmates know no other reality than the ship and the sea. Mark Twain is playing with a favorite theme, Which is the dream?: the world we inhabit  when we think we are awake, or the one we know when we think we are dreaming?” (p. 207)

Note: I picked the first two quickly, without forethought, trying to subvert conscious choosing, but found myself starting to be deliberate with the third. So I closed my eyes, ran my hand along the book spines, and got around myself that way.

First thoughts:

At first glance, I am feeling pleased that the passages seem to echo and approve of where I was going with my “bizarre element” which I envisioned as my main character meeting up with a seemingly imaginary figure, and I’ve thought of having the so called “imaginary” figure tell my main character that he is the real one, while my main character is imaginary. I do really love the which is the dream? theme! In relation to that theme I like the idea of having a literal superintendent character who assists my main character as a kind of psychopomp. That could be really interesting. I’m also pleased that Mark Twain made creative use of his dreams—seems I’m in very good company!

With regard to 2, I have put my character at odds with the superficiality of his culture, which does amount to a rather stifling conservatism. As I’ve written him, he rejects those values and lives somewhat free of restriction, not caring much what others think but 1, the idea of the sulphur gurgling away behind the scenes, gives me the idea that he really DOES mind, that what he wants is to be seen, acknowledged, even acclaimed, even if he doesn’t know it yet. I certainly want that for him.

I think as a follow up, I’m going to read the Mark Twain story. I found it here on Google Books. 

Something overwhelming needs to happen to my character to awaken this sulphuric action, to ignite his desire and his quest. That’s what I need to dwell on at the moment I think. Then I can think more deeply about the rest of my divinatory input.

Thanks for being witness to my process here. Do you think such a method would be helpful to you? Do you employ a similar exercise yourself? Any ideas for tweaking it?

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