As a writer, I am asked how I come up with something to write about. The question usually precedes a comment—that it is difficult to write in such a vivid and transparent way as to put oneself in the setting and in a character’s mind. Writing memoir evolved from years of my journal and note-taking to recently publishing a book. My journal and notes were recordings of my thoughts, internal monologues really, revealing myself, including vulnerabilities, weaknesses and strengths. These recordings can be useful to a writer as they are an example of an effective literary device. This fundamental writing style is stream of consciousness writing.
What is stream of conscious writing and why use it?
Since there is endless instruction about stream of consciousness writing, my intention here is to be brief, give a less technical and simple explanation. Stream of conscious writing is a style of writing that is unstructured, unedited and shows a writer’s (or character’s) thoughts, observations or feelings. As we all know, our internal thoughts quickly process, often moving from one topic or idea to another, and stream of consciousness writing illustrates the mind’s travels. The writing flows quickly, with free-association like our brains automatically work. The narrative technique tracks this fluid state. It is used to break from the confines of writing physical descriptions or dialogue. And here’s an important thing: Readers can track characters’ thoughts in real time, understanding what a character does and why they do it.
A great way to understand this style of writing is to read books that are written using stream of consciousness writing. One of my favorite authors, Virginia Woolf, is a great example. Two of her books, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are my recommended reads. In this opening paragraph in Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf uses stream of consciousness style:
…And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen…” –
Another example is James Joyce’s Ulysses. Most of his writing is in the main character’s thoughts. Other classics in example are:
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
- Malone Dies and The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
- As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac
I have found stream of consciousness writing to be a useful tool in writing my second book, a novel, to create impressionable characters by showing their inner thoughts and feelings. But I also have written shorter pieces, too, drawing from my thoughts as in this example of an essay titled, “Evolution.”
Evolution portrays as I sit with pen in hand recalling my beginning in school to learn the alphabet and how each letter sounded separately and then together and then taking a book in my hand and learning to read as I said aloud the words together to make sentences and discovered complete thoughts where now I’ve taken the beginnings and molded my own structures to form stories that are excavated from layers below the cracked surface drawing upon that lonely day in class sitting on a tiny chair looking upward, eyes meeting their lids, following the taps of the wooden stick from letter to letter sound to sound from one blackboard to another.
Youthful eyes were clear and transparent and at times changing from dark moss green to a bright yellow-green much like the color of a young leaf when the sun hits it right, penetrating the flesh with flowing, bright inquisitiveness highlighting windows of innocence. Apple cheeks then, drawn loose now with varying degrees of skin color while a smile, once energetic and wide, reaches to the eyes, transforms the face as it talks. The smile is now limited to its growth of crows feet, splitting the face with fissures aging commensurate with years while eyes speak separately from the smile as wisdom lowers lids in restful pose with fine lines of milestones following in an evolution of one’s mirror to the soul while recalling the alphabet one letter at time.
A great way to see how your thoughts are processed is to try stream of consciousness writing. As you write, keep in mind these tips:
*Forget grammar and sentence structure.
How easy is that! Don’t capitalize, punctuate or mind your spelling. Make up a word if it comes to you. Get your creative thoughts moving, mirroring how they naturally flow, which is not in complete sentences or correct grammar. Use short phrases.
*Don’t edit a thing.
I know, editing is inherent in any writing we do. Editing will only undermine what you are trying to accomplish.
*Use internal monologue.
As you write with a character in mind, use a simple narrative of exactly what is going on in a character’s mind. It is all about a character, his or her insecurities, for example, and voice, allowing it all to come to the surface.
Stream of consciousness writing can be a difficult literary device to master. But don’t be intimidated by it and do give it a try. You don’t have to be a Virginia Woolf or James Joyce to use this style of writing. Your thoughts and those of your characters are unique to you. I use my mind’s treasure of information to answer when asked how I come up with something to write about.
After all, fiction writers strive to draw readers in by giving them the ability to hear, think and feel characters.