Monday, November 13, 2006

Notes on Experimentation: Stream of Consciousness

Reading one of Dave Mehler's poems recently, I was reminded of the technique of stream of consciousness (SOC), and its place in experimental poetry. Here is an excerpt from the poem's opening, reprinted with permission:

Fueling at the Pilot on Steele St., Denver, CO

Remembrance sweet routines early morning routine I must have performed a thousand
rituals thousands of times fuel up at the Pilot truckstop

Hook up or hooked up drive the couple blocks from the terminal steering pulling swing
low swing wide sweet chariot into any open bay

Inserting the card magnetic strip up put on gloves stained soaked unscrew the cap lifting
the nozzle off and place into the tank

Squeeze the handle lock it up hear watch the fuel gush release the rubber strap securing
driver side of the hood walk around the front undo the strap on the passenger side

Lift the nozzle from the satellite pump unscrew the cap so dirty so covered with diesel
road grime oily dirt grasp the pump nozzle in the right gloved hand

Grey leather blackened shiny on fingers back of the glove canvas pin-striped white and
blue and thin red—smell of diesel raw fuel pouring in a rush and gush by gallons

Smell of twin-stacked exhaust filling lungs waking me the jolt up ritual two-thirty
Ogalala or Casper four am Ft. Morgan Sterling . . . .

Dave has presented this poem using a couple of different formal layouts: one of them as blocks of text, as above, which can be read as single long lines; the other broken into a more traditional enjambment. I far prefer the more SOC-like version, as it looks and feels more like actual stream of consciousness, a person having idle thoughts in a flowing internal monologue with interruption or pause. I feel this far more accurately represents actual mentation. I feel that breaking such a piece into enjambed lines not only breaks up the flow of SOC, but it also makes the poem more self-consciously poetic. I love the long-line single-breaths that this unpunctuated long-line form also implies: it leads me to want to perform the poem with a sense of continuous rhythmic rushing, with long breaths and long phrases, rising and falling. There is the sense, from that, of the endless journeys taken via truck, the long road stretching out before one, the hum of the tires on the tarmac: all evoked, implicitly, by the layout and rushing flow of the text. I feel this makes for a very successful poem.

Stream of consciousness is a writing technique that attempts to depict the psychology of mentation. many experiments have been made in the attempt, ranging from the continuous flow of surface thoughts written down by the writer, to very experimental texts using no-standard syntax, typography, and illustration. In many ways, it's an impossible task: writing anywhere near to the speed of thought, the speed at which the mind moves, gives us a majority of uninteresting, mundane thoughts. A true depiction of ordinary thought-consciousness would most likely be trivial and boring. There is an art to writing stream-of-consciousness. It looks artless and random, but in fact it takes work to get to that point. The artfulness comes in selecting what to include, and what to leave.

How does one depict stream of consciousness?

One famous example of SOC writing is the last chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses, the Penelope chapter. This chapter depicts the inner monologue of Leopold Bloom's wife, Molly, who is of course Penelope to Bloom's Odysseus; her continuous flow of thoughts is homely and erotic, detailed and general, highly charged, and almost completely unpunctuated.

Another example of flowing SOC writing is Samuel Beckett's short prose-poem piece, Lessness. This is a good piece to read aloud to one's self.

Lessness piece is more artfully constructed than it appears, with poetic repetitions of imagery and phrase that loop back around to create a state of dynamic immobility: always changing, but always the same. The piece was constructed using fragments that are arranged using partially aleatoric (chance-method-based) means to determine order and placement in each section. What I find when I read this piece aloud, though, is that it takes one into a state of mind that seems to accurately depict stream of consciousness. It appears random. It feels random. (Elizabeth Drew and Mads Haahr wrote an interesting paper on Lessness, focusing on randomness and stream of consciousness, and also discussing aleatoric construction.)

Beckett stated an intention to depict "the chaos of consciousness" in his work, to accomodate the randomness of surface thought processes in linguistic form. In his shorter prose works, such as Lessness, and in some of the shorter radio plays such as Cascando, I think he succeeded in depicting stream of consciousness accurately.

Other examples of SOC writing, on a much larger scale, are Virginia Woolf's two best novels (in my opinion), To the Lighthouse and The Waves. Particularly in The Waves, Woolf allows her characters to depict their SOC to the reader as directly as possible: the entire novel is written as internal monologues spoken by the 6 characters; and interrupted only by descriptions of the waves on the shore, throughout the course of a day.

Let's try an exercise in stream of consciousness writing:

1. Sit down with a pad of paper, or a new file on your computer. A blank page, be it longhand or at the keyboard. Sit quietly for a moment, and listen to your own thoughts. Try not to judge or dismiss anything, just listen.

2. Start writing whatever comes into your mind, and whatever your hand wants to write down. Don't edit, don't break the piece into enjambed lines (you can do that later, if you wish), and don't stop. Write down your thoughts as they emerge, and let them stream out onto the page without getting in their way.

This is one of those techniques where getting the mind "out of the way" produces better results than if one allows one's internal editor to sit in on the process. Getting the mind out of the way means paying attention to your surface thoughts without judging them. Every thought is equally valid, and can be detailed. Everything that comes up can be written down. Don't edit. Editing comes later.

3. IMPORTANT: For the purposes of this exercise, don't use a lot of unnecessary punctuation. Or, use a reduced set of punctuation. Get a feel for how some kinds of punctuation (including line-breaks) actually stop or interfere with the flow of SOC. Try to avoid stopping the flow. If that means writing words with no punctuation, do that. If that means running words together without letterspaces, that's okay too. Short paragraphs with only commas are good. Long pages with no breaks and no paragraphs are great. Go back and look at Dave Mehler's poem above, and the Beckett and Joyce examples, for a sense of style, if you find that helpful.

When I write this way in my longhand journal, i frequently only use semi-colons and commas for punctuation; this gives a feel of continuous thought; I might stop and take breaks, but the text keeps moving; and ending a paragraph with a semi-colon leaves a sense that the thought goes on even after I finish writing; it continues, as life itself does; it never comes to a full stop, with a period, but uses only conditional, partial pauses, depicted with semi-colons;

4. The object here is to flow, without stopping or breaking, and to sustain the flow as long as possible. Most of what you write will be nothing special, and you will likely discard most of it. But don't stop yourself to make those editorial decisions while writing—do that later. Keep the flow going for at least a few minutes or pages before taking a break.

5. Now, after you stop writing, take a breath, take a short break: get completely away from what you have just been doing, for at least a few minutes. Have a cup of tea, watch TV for awhile. Step away, and give yourself a moment to do something completely unrelated. You may discover that you are in a slightly altered state of consciousness, for awhile.

This exercise can shift the normal flow of random thoughts, merely because we have been paying more attention to them than we normally do. When we start to Pay Attention this closely to what we are thinking and feeling, it can alter our state of mind.

Don't come to your writing till you have shifted back to a normal state of mind.

6. When you come back to what you have written, look for those sections—there may be many, there may be few—that seem to flow the way consciousness flows. You may wish to copy them off to a new page. Look for repetitions (consciousness is often very repetitive) and cycles, and recurring themes. Begin to arrange them on the page so that they look completely spontaneous and artless and natural.

This exercise is a good way to do "morning pages" as a daily writing exercise: spew without editing, then mine the page for the golden bits, later.

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Anonymous rafee said...

wow sobra!.. thank you very much for your article "Notes on Experimentation: Stream of Conciousness". Sobrang helpful 'coz i'm going to report on that topic in my literature class and might be helpful in creative writing class as well. Thank you po.

10:45 PM  
Blogger the munator said...

hello there,I am Ravi,a student from India.I just googled "examples of Streams of Consciousness writing" and stumbled upon ur blog. It was really informative.Actually there is a part of me which longs to become a writer and I was very curious to experiment with this style .Thanx a lot.u may drop in at my blog- :)

3:44 PM  
Blogger Ant Farm said...

I, too, like Ravi googled the same keywords and was led to your site. I appreciate your pedagogy. It is a very nice touch to add this "lesson". I have been trying to get my poetry as liquid as possible, but the internal, eternal editor always butts in. I am going to take you on, and just let it rip. I will be back! Thanks!

2:55 PM  
Blogger mohitparikh said...

Great post. Very informative.
What's your take on creating a plot for novels with Stream Of Consciousness writing? I am writing a story in this style and learning that it can not be action-oriented.

2:14 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

You're right, it cannot be action-oriented, or plot-driven, although action can happen, and there can be a plot. It has to be character-driven because stream-of-consciousness is all about the people who are thinking, talking, being. What would go through his/her mind next? They see something, it brings up other thoughts, for example.

I think a very good model of how to do this is Virginia Woolf's novel "To the Lighthouse."

8:05 AM  

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