When it comes to taking control of our thoughts, one of the most effective techniques is stream-of-consciousness style writing. This writing style helps us make sense of our thinking patterns and emotional triggers, helping us better figure out our wants, needs, and goals.
But there’s a caveat. In order for certain non-bullet types of journaling to work, it’s important to take any self-editing out of the equation to allow for a natural flow. This type of free writing requires abandoning self-criticism and overthinking habits, and stream-of-consciousness writing is only beneficial if you write without thinking, letting the words flow on to the page. This narrative technique can reveal important underlying thought processes.
In literature, stream-of-consciousness is the interior monologue of a character's thoughts. As a literary technique, stream-of-consciousness makes us feel closer to the character and brings them to life. Some of the top writers in this category are Henry James, Jonathan Safran Foer, Sylvia Plath, and Jack Kerouac. These authors mastered this literary device and the use of stream-of-consciousness.
Want to see a great example of stream-of-consciousness? Read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot
But stream-of-consciousness writing goes far beyond popular literary terms. In psychology, it's all about following the stream of thoughts inside your mind. Here’s everything you need to know.
Definition of stream-of-consciousness
Psychologist William James first coined the phrase "stream-of-consciousness." As one of the principles of psychology, William James defines it as the full range of thoughts that one can be aware of.
“Stream-of-consciousness is writing the first words or thoughts that go through your mind without actually planning or consciously thinking about what you are writing,” says Matthew Welsh, MS, PhD. “Some people may refer to it as automatic writing.”
In other words, this type of writing allows you to dive deeper into your unconscious, revealing thoughts and feelings below the surface. This style of writing provides a creative outlet to raise your self-awareness.
How to start writing in stream-of-consciousness style
The first step is to quiet your mind and get “in the zone.” Meditation is a popular stream-of-consciousness technique.
“When we talk about getting into the stream-of-consciousness, what we’re really talking about is getting into a state of focus and flow,” Chris Lemig, CHT, registered hypnotherapist. “It’s that feeling we get when we’re so into what we’re doing that when we finally look up, we’re surprised to find a couple of hours has gone by.”
Long distance runners experience this feeling, as well as writers and anyone in a creative profession. There are a lot of ways you can get better at tapping into your stream-of-consciousness. Since it has a lot to do with focus and attention, a regular mindfulness or meditation practice can really help build those attention muscles, Lemig explains.
2. Limit distractions
Writing when you’re not distracted is an important part of this process. The goal is to avoid interrupting the continuous flow of thoughts.
“This can best be done after meditation, yoga, or walking in nature,” Welsh explains. “For other people it can be best to write in the middle of the night, right before going to sleep, or immediately after waking up. These are good times because the mind is usually less preoccupied with other worries then.”
It's important to remember that stream-of-consciousness writing isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Do whatever works best for you.
3. Don’t self-edit
In order to get an accurate picture of your innermost thoughts and feelings, you have to write without a filter. Don't worry about grammatical errors, syntax, or a lack of punctuation. Holding back from expressing how you really feel defeats the purpose of this exercise.
Here's one of the best examples of stream-of-consciousness: Let’s say you get into a heated argument with your partner. Your internal monologue may sound like this: “I just don’t understand. How many times do I need to tell him that this upsets me? Maybe he doesn’t care about me anymore. I’m scared he doesn’t want to make this relationship work.”
Just follow the path of thoughts and see where it leads. You may see the stream-of-consciousness narrative is escalated by irrational fear and worry. This type of fear can lead to self-sabotage, which is why writing stream-of-consciousness is so beneficial. It will help you separate fact from fiction and reframe your point of view.
Benefits of stream-of-consciousness writing
In case it’s not obvious by now, there are a handful of benefits that come with stream-of-consciousness writing. These include:
1. It can provide a better understanding of your own thought processes
By writing in an unfiltered, stream-of-consciousness way, you can better understand how your own thought processes work. This can help you identify anxiety patterns and triggers, spend more time doing things that make you happy, and better clarify your long and short-term goals.
2. It can help you articulate things
If you struggle to organize your thoughts, stream-of-consciousness writing is the perfect way to start the organization process, because it will help you get your thoughts out of your head and onto a piece of paper (or Word or Google doc — no judgement!)
3. It’s a release
Stream-of-consciousness writing can serve as an excellent release for thought and emotions. Simply by writing out your feelings, you can transition from a frazzled, anxious state to a calm one in a matter of minutes.
4. It can make you a better writer
As they say, practice makes perfect, and if you want to improve your writing skills, stream-of-consciousness writing is a great way to do it. By letting the words flow out on the page, you’ll probably end up writing more than you would if you were to edit yourself, which will make you a better writer over time.
Remember, the stream-of-consciousness style is intended to shed light into your soul: the good, the bad, and everything in between. This kind of free association can be scary at first, but it’s important to look within in order to grow and evolve into who you are meant to be.
In the wise words of author Virginia Woolf, author of the stream-of-consciousness novel Mrs. Dalloway, “We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary moment in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments.
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