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Stream of Nonsense

In attaining my undergrad English degree, I had to take a certain amount of classes: World literature, English, literature, American literature, creative writing, grammar/syntax, history of the English language, etc. In my final semester before graduation, I realized I had not yet taken a 300-level or above American lit class. I had taken my 200-level intro class, but nothing since. There was a reason for this. Generally speaking, I dislike American literature. I know, I'm a terrible person. So in my panic, I talked with my adviser, and he recommended New Modernist Studies, a 500-level class that fulfilled my advanced American lit requirement. Of course, given my indifference to American Lit, I had no idea what New Modernist literature was. But I felt confident that I was up for it, no matter what was thrown my way. Oh, if only I had known.

I bring this up because my most recent large freelance editing assignment is a very lengthy stream-of-consciousness non-fiction book (which is, for the record, an awful idea). And I was reminded of that agonizing semester where I had to read Faulkner, Joyce, and—worst of all—TS Eliot. It was mostly within Virginia Woolf that I nearly drowned in the concept of stream of consciousness writing. Let me demonstrate:

But what have I done with my life? thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making
               white circles on it. "William, sit by me," she said.  "Lily," she said, wearily, "over there."  They had that -- Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle
               -- she, only this -- an infinitely long table and plates and knives.  At the far end, was her husband, sitting down, all in a heap, frowning. 
               What at?  She did not know.  She did not mind.  She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him. 
               She had a sense of being past everything, as she helped the soup, as if there was an eddy -- there -- and one could be in it, or one could
               be out of it, and she was out of it.  It's all come to an end, she thought, while they came in one after another, Charles Tansley -- "Sit there,
               please," she said -- Augustus Carmicheal -- and sat down.  And meanwhile she waited, passively, for some one to answer her, for something
               to happen.  But this is not a thing, she thought, ladling out soup, that one says. 
                     Raising her eyebrows at the discrepancy -- that was what she was thinking, this was what she was doing -- ladling out soup -- she felt,
               more and more strongly, outside that eddy; or as if a shade had fallen, and, robbed of colour, she saw things truly." (Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 83)

Does that look like fun to anyone? Yeah, me neither. Now let me show you what my most recent editing job looks like.

“An ever advancing Civilization” The motive power of civilization when it occurs it is transforming effects on the minds and soul to those who respond to it,-it is replicated in a new society that slowly takes shape around their experience. A radical redefinition of concepts of rights and wrongs makes possible the formulation of new codes of civil laws and conduct, new institutions are conceived in order to give expressions to impulses of moral responsibility previously ignored or unknown. Although the mission of each manifestation is limited in time and in functions it performs, it is an integral part of an ongoing progressive enfoldment of ‘God’s Power and Will’

The overarching theme of this paper is the under-utilization of the black man's superior physical and intellectual prowess in modern times. At least I think it is. I have been reading my whole life, studying writing and literature for most of my adult life, and yet I have almost no comprehension of stream of consciousness writing.

Does that mean my reading skills are below those who enjoy stream of consciousness? Or does it mean that my own "stream of consciousness" is just more coherent? I just never "got it" and passed my New Modernist Studies class by comparing gender construction in A Farewell to Arms (Faulkner) and Orlando (Woolfe).

What are your experiences with stream of consciousness? Do you enjoy it? In what contexts to you think it is most appropriate/enjoyable? Somehow I feel as though I am missing out on something that could be great, so recommendations are welcome.


  1. Stream of consciousness implies three things to me:

    1. I have no intention of rewriting this.
    2. I have no intention of editing this.
    3. I have no intention of organizing this.

    It's called a FIRST DRAFT.

  2. Ha! I'm glad it's not just me. I thought I was just failing some test of intellect :)

  3. This reminds me of an editing job I had a few years ago. A young man from Ethiopia wandered into my church looking for someone to edit a book he had written (yes, churches are good places to find editors, right?). One of the ministers took pity on him and paid me to edit his mss. I was excited to work on it because it was argument for Ethiopians and Eritreans to put aside their differences and work together.

    However, the mss rambled, was incoherent, and repeated itself.

    I'm willing to work with people who have a limited grasp of English, so long as they're willing to be worked with. But he thought it was already brilliant and couldn't understand why I suggested he rewrite it.

    I must have gotten through to him because he called me a few weeks later and asked if I would edit his new version. As last time, however, he had no way to pay for it, so I told him I was teaching and would not be available until the end of the semester. I never heard from him again.

    Though he didn't intentionally write in "stream of consciousness," he typifies the attitude I think that genre generally conveys: Because I wrote it, it's brilliant.


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