Stream of Consciousness

Writing How the Mind Works

stream of consciousness
"Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits," wrote William James. "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). (Amana Images/Getty Images)

The idea of stream of consciousness is a narrative technique that gives the impression of a mind at work, jumping from one observation, sensation, or reflection to the next seamlessly and often without conventional transitions.

Although stream of consciousness is commonly associated with the work of novelists including James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, the method has also been used effectively by writers of creative nonfiction and is often referred to as freewriting.

The metaphor of the stream of consciousness was coined by American philosopher and psychologist William James in "The Principles of Psychology" in 1890, and has been perpetuated to this day in the modern literature and psychology fields.

Urgency and Presence in Stream of Consciousness

Often used by creative writing teachers as a means to get the "creative juices flowing" for their students at the beginning of classes, a stream of consciousness writing exercises often ground writers in the presentness, the importance of a given subject or discourse.

In creative fiction, a stream of consciousness may be used by a narrator to convey the thoughts or feelings going on in the head of a character, a writer's trick to convince the audience of the authenticity of thoughts he or she is attempting to write into the story. These internal monologs of sorts read and transfer thought more organically to the audience, providing a direct look into the "inner workings" of a character's mental landscape.

The characteristic lack of punctuation and transitions only furthers this idea of a free-flowing prose wherein the reader and speaker alike jump from one topic to the next, much like a person would when daydreaming about a given topic — one might start with talking about fantasy films but end up discussing the finer points of medieval costuming, for instance, seamlessly and without transition.

Notable Examples in Tom Wolfe's Nonfiction Work

Stream of consciousness writing isn't only for fictional works — Tom Wolfe's memoir " Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" is packed full of beautiful, eloquent stream of consciousness which provides insight into the protagonists' journey and story. Take this excerpt for example: 

"—Kesey has Cornel Wilde Running Jacket ready hanging on the wall, a jungle-jim corduroy jacket stashed with fishing line, a knife, money, DDT, tablet, ball-points, flashlight, and grass. Has it timed by test runs that he can be out the window, down through a hole in the roof below, down a drain pipe, over a wall and into thickest jungle in 45 seconds—well, only 35 seconds left, but head start is all that’s needed, with the element of surprise. Besides, it's so fascinating to be here in subastral projection with the cool rushing dex, synched into their minds and his own, in all its surges and tributaries and convolutions, turning it this way and that and rationalizing the situation for the 100th time in split seconds, such as: If they have that many men already here, the phony telephone men, the cops in the tan car, the cops in the Volkswagen, what are they waiting for? why haven't they crashed right in through the rotten doors of this Rat building--"

In "The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel," Mas'ud Zavarzadeh explains Wolfe's above use of stream of consciousness as the dominating narrative choice for this section of the nonfiction novel, saying "the technical rationale for the use of such narrational devices in the nonfiction novel is the treatment of the subjectivity of the situation or person portrayed, as distinguished from the projected subjectivity (empathy) of the fictive novelist."