→ Iryna Byelyayeva
In BSP, we’ve spoken (for what seems likes ages) about the various rules concerning grammar and punctuation (gotta know ’em to break ’em, right?). What is the proper way to use a colon? When do we implement a semi-colon? Is an oxford comma actually necessary (aesthetically, it’s always an abomination)? We know the rules of punctuation and have read countless works that follow them. But what happens when authors get a little bit creative with punctuation? Can breaking the rules open up a whole new way of communicating an idea to a reader?
(where Willy James looks at rivers too much and now we wanna write like real life)
Stream of consciousness—writing that reflects the way we think—is a literary form which often allows writers to play with sentence structure and punctuation. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as ‘a narrative technique in nondramatic fiction intended to render the flow of myriad impressions [sic].’ It is an attempt to describe the ‘visual, auditory, physical, associative, and subliminal’(ooooh there’s that oxford comma) impressions which we process simultaneously. The term was coined by American philosopher and psychologist, William James, in his 1910 book The Principles of Psychology. James outlines five critical points in breaking down the way our thoughts work—two of which (the other three aren’t relevant to this article) are that ‘each personal consciousness thought is always changing’ and ‘each personal consciousness thought is continuous’. Each thought we have is both separate and interwoven to the rest—‘my thought belongs with my other thoughts and your thoughts with your other thoughts’. He concludes that ‘consciousness ... does not appear to itself chopped up in bits’ but flows much like a river or a stream.
Many writers have aimed to show reality through their books, particularly during and after the modernist movement in the beginning of the 20th century. Stream of consciousness was used by many modernist authors, such as James Joyce (but more on him later) and Virginia Woolf. The way we interpret the world is crucial to our identity in society. Stream of consciousness attempts to put a mirror up to the individual. Unfortunately, writing the way we think is impossible as some thoughts stop unfinished and others layer on top of each other. The way we read is not the way we think. Writers have turned to punctuation and the implications in tone each symbol brings. (here are three examples:)
(where Molly can’t concentrate and thinks about boinking Boylan Blazes)
One method of punctuating stream of consciousness is using practically no punctuation at all. Joyce’s (remember him from before?) 1922 novel Ulysses is an epic (ironic, taking the plot into account) exploration on the quotidian musings and movements of Leopold Bloom, a middle-class Irish man. While the whole book (all 1000 pages) plays with stream of consciousness and weaves in and out of thought and dialogue, the final chapter is most famous for its lack of punctuation. The last sixty pages are dedicated to Leopold’s wife, Molly, who lies in bed and thinks back on her day: running into acquaintances, starting an affair (with a guy called Boylan Blazes!!) and remembering the day Leopold proposed to her.
The chapter is technically eight sentences long but without punctuation it reads as one long sentence. Still, Joyce gives his readers a moment to breathe each time Molly thinks ‘yes’ (side note: the Kate Bush song ‘Sensual World’ is based on Molly’s soliloquy). Every couple of pages Molly stops for a moment to agree with herself. Joyce illustrates our late-night ramblings—the way events of the day pass through us and we analyse each decision we made and the thoughts we had. ‘Yes’ becomes a word to remind us, through the farrago of ideas and memories, that we are simply reading a woman’s contemplations. Joyce does not romanticise Molly or vilify (I wish ‘villainise’ was a word) her for her affair. Any more punctuation would govern the pace we read the text and how we interpret it. (side note: the constant ‘yes’ could also been seen as an empowering thing, like Molly doesn’t feel guilty about everything she’s done and is actually consenting to the events of the day) Finally, the chapter comes to a crescendo with the last sentence: ‘yes I said yes I will Yes’.
(where Sal tries to get excited about life by road-tripping with a morally questionable friend)
Opposing Joyce’s no-punctuation method, Jack Kerouac fills his 1957 novel On the Road with commas. On the Road was written as a realistic portrayal of Kerouac’s America—the people in it and the imperfect, unwholesome lives they lead. The manuscript was written on what Kerouac called ‘the scroll’—a continuous 120-foot scroll of architect’s paper sheets which he had cut to size and stuck together. The narrator takes his readers on a three-year journey around America. For the most part, the voice of the novel is smooth and rolls along (like on a highway, I get it) through long sentences infused with commas. These are sometimes undercut with short, sharp statements, like the opening line: ‘I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.’ Kerouac’s sudden switching of sentence lengths demonstrates how new thoughts can interrupt ongoing ones.
The commas keep the long sentences easy to follow. A comma is usually seen as a pause. In On the Road, the commas show the progression of ideas and thoughts—each leads into the next (like what Willy James was saying). Another interesting aspect of Kerouac’s sentences is their ability to slip asides into the middle of a thought. For example, the last sentence takes up fifteen lines and includes a question: ‘...and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star...’ The new thought is not important enough to have its own sentence and relies on the rest of the phrase to support it. Some critics believe if Kerouac used parentheses for his asides the tone would differ too greatly and this approach would not work (rude! I’m trying something out here!).
(where a young girl and a ghost remember stuff)
(finally) Ali Smith’s 2014 novel How to Be Both is a contemporary demonstration of stream of consciousness. The text, split into two parts, seamlessly flows between the present moment and memory. The text shows the interconnected stories of George, a young girl grieving the loss of her mother, and Francesco, the ghost of a Renaissance painter musing about their life. What is intriguing is Smith’s use of colons in Francesco’s narration. Francesco’s inner-monologue abounds with sentences structured like so: ‘I went to see what size they were: flies rose: as I did I saw one of the boots’. Francesco has a grand, old manner of speaking and thinking. Smith creates this tone by using colons to show ideas streaming out of each other. Although this may not be the grammatically correct way of using a colon (but who has time to be a pendant when there’s Literature to write?) the implications of a colon work in Smith’s favour. The phrase after a colon should expand on what came before, so each new thought Francesco has is implied to be connected and yet separate (Willy Jim’s theory strikes once again). In fact, as Francesco is a spirit and no longer has any restraints on their physical being, the punctuation restraints placed on George have no meaning for Francesco either. Smith uses parentheses (and they work!) and plays with the placing of the text on the page in the beginning and ending of the part to help the reader imagine the way Francesco thinks. Smith’s formatting the text as though ideas are literally flowing on the page is a nod to the fact that we do not think from left to right. In fact, our thoughts are scattered and are only cohesive to ourselves.
Writers have been attempting to show the inner mind of an individual for centuries, yes, I wonder who the first was: in contemporary publishing we have more room to experiment with punctuation, and play with form yes simplicity has become a staple in contemporary writing but authors such as Smith are still allowing themselves to experiment and scrutinise our reading experience: with such role models as Joyce, Kerouac and now Smith, a writer today can attempt stream of consciousness writing with punctuation being the tools in their toolbox yes we will Yes. (too much?)