By Anne A. Wilson
Stream of consciousness is a phrase that was coined by American philosopher and psychologist William James to characterize the workings of the conscious mind.
“Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘ stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” (The Principles of Psychology, 1890).
In terms of writing technique, stream of consciousness is a narrative method that reads like an internal monologue, where the character flows from one observation or thought or feeling to the next, often without standard transitions or punctuation.
You’ve seen this literary device employed by such well-known authors as Jack Kerouac, Virginia Woolfe, and William Faulkner. But this style of writing is also a great way for you to kick-start your brain, whether to sort out a problem, brainstorm ideas, or if you’re an author, to write that elusive chapter.
Writing in the stream-of-consciousness style has aided me many times when I’ve stared at a blank page. To do this, I have a written conversation with myself about what I’m thinking for a particular plot point or character. Often, this morphs into an actual dialogue between characters or takes me in a direction I hadn’t yet imagined. And whaddya know? I’m off and running again. Here’s a quick example off the top of my head. Stream of consciousness . . . go!
Maybe I can have Johnny running to the store and he’s wet and cold and it reminded him of that time when he was seven and his dad kicked him out of the house and he fell and has that scar that’s still there on his face and then—bam!—brakes screech and a car shoots out in front of him . . . Or instead make it that he’s walking slowly, hot and tired and sweat is dripping and he’s got stains under his armpits and he’s just bombed his interview and—bam!—the girl he’s been in love with since forever steps out of her car and she’s like right there and more beautiful than he ever remembered. . .
Something like that. No thought to punctuation, or does it make sense, or is it grammatically correct. Just thinking out loud and throwing stuff down on the page.
If you do this, guess what? You no longer have a blank page. Whatever you’ve written, no matter how wacky or out there it is, you have something to work with in the form of different settings, circumstances, conclusions, and on and on. Then you can ask yourself, what if I played out this angle? Where would this go?
In the same way, it’s also useful for sorting through problems, especially if your brain is getting muddled. When you write in this manner, your brain disengages. Almost like it unsticks and allows new ideas to flow. You don’t even have to type on a computer. Writing in a notebook long hand will do.
So try it. Let yourself go. See where your unedited, unrestricted, free-flowing mind will take you.
Anne A. Wilson is the author of Hover and Clear to Lift. She was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, and graduated from the United States Naval Academy with a degree in ocean engineering. She served nine years active duty as a navy helicopter pilot, including three years flying search and rescue, where she specialized in high-altitude technical mountain rescue. Following her military service, she worked for four years in the semiconductor industry. Currently, she and her husband own a triathlon coaching company, Camelback Coaching. Anne lives in Fountain Hills, AZ, with her husband and two sons. To learn more, visit www.anneawilson.com.
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