Craft Lessons and Prompts – Stream of Consciousness and Virginia Woolf

February 6, 2015

In our Craft Lessons and Writing Prompts series we take a quick look at a craft element and pair it with a writing exercise. It’s a great way to learn and inspire yourself. Writing exercises are wonderful for generating new material and working outside your comfort zone. In our first of these mini-lessons, we’ll take a look at the narrative device stream of consciousness.

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” – Virginia Woolf

virginia-woolfTwo of Virginia Woolf’s most notable novels, To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, are good examples of the narrative device stream of consciousness. At the time, the use of this device was highly experimental. It has been used in Ulysses by James Joyce, but in a way that was more traditional for the time. Much has been written about stream of consciousness and there are many fussy definitions. (There is a wonderful essay on the topic written by Yanxia Sang for those who want to take a closer look.) However, for our purposes, the most important thing to know about stream of consciousness is that it is not a synonym for internal monologue. Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that is the written equivalent to a character’s thought process—or a stylized way of thinking out loud. It is often written in first person and is less ordered and occasionally more jumbled than an internal monologue, which is most often written in third person and follows a slightly more structured flow of thoughts to depict a characters’ opinions of his environment.

Virginia Woolf applies what is called indirect interior monologue to her writing, (ahem, fussy definitions) which allows her to explore her characters’ stream of consciousness in the third person. For all intents and purposes, this is stream of consciousness as we know and discuss it.

So what is so experimental about stream of consciousness? Before Woolf, writers had used this technique, but their application of it was chaotic and difficult to follow, and it wasn’t very well received by readers. Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway by exploring the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of her characters, which was very experimental for the time. It was an entirely new way of looking at the world. Today, writers use stream of consciousness to address the internal explorations of characters as well as a foundation for structuring whole novels (think Remains of the Day or the recent Inherent Vice). Woolf’s work exploring the thoughts, feelings, moods, and expectations of characters in a seamless way changed the structure of writing in a significant way.

Stream of Consciousness Exercise:

Free Association is the most commonly known exercise to explore stream of consciousness, which is precisely why for this prompt we are going to avoid it. We need to think of stream of consciousness in a way where it is explored in a fresh or more abstract way. For this exercise, think of an object (animal, plant, mountain, stop sign, rubik’s cube, etc.)—anything that does not normally have a voice—and write a stream of consciousness paragraph depicting its thoughts, feelings, moods, or opinions about the world around it.

At The Masters Review, we are big proponents of writing having a purpose larger than the strangeness of its form, so try to think about what this object’s point of view is commenting on. Why is it important for readers to hear from this perspective? Keep in mind that Virginia Woolf often used punctuation — a lot of semi colons and parentheticals — to give structure to a structure-less form.

“With her unique devices such as guiding phrases, semicolons, and parenthesis embroidered to her interior monologue, Virginia Woolf successfully overcomes the shortcomings of stream of consciousness novel of being incoherent and chaotic, and achieves great explicitness, coherence, vividness and unity in presenting the characters’ inner world.” — Yanxia Sang

Feel free to share your work in the comments! Happy Writing!


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