Stream-of-consciousness: Writing exercise or therapy?

When I was in high school, we suffered through, ahem, read James Joyce’s Ulysses. I said in class that I felt like if I read it with one eye shut, it began to make a certain amount of sense. Which, surprisingly, excited my teacher no end, because, she said, that was exactly the point! What? *bewilderment*

She introduced us to the concept of “stream-of-consciousness” writing, and I have used it through the years for everything from journaling to poetry to figuring out “stuck” story points. As a literary device, stream-of-consciousness conveys the fluid thoughts or actions of a character. Joyce is a classic example. As a writing exercise, the idea is to put your pen to paper and keep writing without stopping, even if you don’t know what to say and just write “I don’t know what to say!” over and over until something happens. And the odd thing is, something usually does. This actually works particularly well with physical handwriting, and there’s lots of psychology about the difference between writing and typing. But in truth, it works well with typing, and I have used it both ways with equal success. Of course, that doesn’t always mean that I find something brilliant in what I’ve written! But I am often surprised by where it takes me.

About six months after I started writing my first novel (WIP), I attended a journaling workshop. We were give the prompt “water” and instructed to write using stream-of-consciousness, which I’d lost the habit of using. Well I started writing some drivel and spun my wheels for bit, and then all of the sudden a terrific memory popped into my head, about a day trip with friends to a waterfall when I was in high school. When I shared this portion with the group, someone said, “You could use that in your story!”

*Light bulb*

This is now a seminal scene in the novel!

Another time I used it was during NaNoWriMo, working on my second novel (WIP), it was near the end of the month and I was stuck in my storyline and feeling the pressure of getting enough words written each day. Finally, I decided to use a stream-of-consciousness exercise to see if I could break through. I literally started with spewing out all my frustration with the pressure, the block, all the negativity of “I can’t do this, why am I even trying?” And all of the sudden, I had an idea, scribbled it down, laughed, wrote *that* down, and plowed on. It really was a cathartic experience and creative breakthrough in one.

I encourage you to give it a try. You might be surprised where it takes you.

Here is a small example:

Cat

My first though is of my cat now, Mango. But my first cat…when I was six I wanted a pet of my own. We had a dog, a German Shepherd, but I wanted a kitten. A boy in my class…William Atkins…how can I remember his name after all this time? His father was a vet, and William brought a mother cat and her kittens to show-and-tell, and I was in love. Then I got chicken pox but that’s another story. Anyway, I got to keep one of the kittens. It was gray with little white paws. She went through several names…I don’t remember all of them but at least one was Paige because she was my best friend then…until I decided on Sugar because her tongue felt like it had sugar on it when she kissed me. The kitten, not Paige. And why Sugar and not salt? Because she was so sweet of course. I was six.

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