What I Learned About Writing From Reading James Joyce - Craft Your Content
reading James Joyce

What I Learned About Writing From Reading James Joyce

There are few writers who are touted by pretentious readers more than James Joyce. Maybe David Foster Wallace? Or William Shakespeare?

But when I first came across Joyce in my high school senior year English class while reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I had no idea that reading this guy’s work was considered pretentious. I didn’t even know who he was, what else he had written, or why anyone studied him at all.

Heck, the very first line of that book is “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo ….”

How could pretentious people get behind a guy who writes the word “moocow” or about a “baby tuckoo” (whatever that is)?

Isn’t that essentially gibberish?

My 17-year-old self had a hard time believing that this Joyce guy was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. How were his words worth reading if they were essentially nonsense (to the untrained eye)?

As I continued reading his first novel, though, I started to understand what was so intriguing about him. Joyce relied on conventions—like the bildungsroman—but he also broke conventions by using “stream-of-consciousness” writing.

Throughout college, I came across Joyce’s work again and again, and I’ve realized that his stories and novels have influenced not only my writing style, but also my approach to words, language, ideas, and the practice of writing itself.

His novels and short stories broadened my perspective on what writing could be, along with giving me new techniques to capture an authentic writing voice and genuine feelings.

Writing With Abandon Can Be Cathartic

reading James Joyce

Reading stream-of-consciousness writing from the masters encouraged me to try it with my own writing.

Joyce (along with other Modernist writers) popularized a style called “stream of consciousness,” but it wasn’t until I read specific episodes of Ulysses that I understood what it meant to write this way.

Stream of consciousness is a writing device used as an attempt to depict various feelings and thoughts flowing through your mind. It can be especially effective for conveying an authentic sense of self, and how you feel in the moment, because it relies on associative thought processes—something akin to how we think and move in our daily lives.

For example, while writing this piece on Joyce, I was reminded of a college course I took, and a classmate I was friends with but haven’t spoken to in a few years, and suddenly I was wondering how they are doing now. This type of writing—writing without being entirely concerned with where the idea is going—is quite freeing.

Authors like Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf are well-known for their use of stream-of-consciousness writing, and it’s one of the defining qualities of Modernist literature (from the early 1900s). It’s also a common practice for writers who are experiencing writer’s block, though in these cases, it’s referred to as “freewriting.”

Other writers have observed that Joyce’s use of stream of consciousness mirrors a mindfulness approach to writing, tracking things “as they happen, from moment to moment,” or in other words, being present without judgment.

Reading stream-of-consciousness writing, like in Joyce’s novels, inspired my own approach to writing with abandon—an approach that definitely feels cathartic and productive. When tackling a piece of writing, I start with a freewriting draft to capture my own stream of consciousness. I write down everything I can think of, everything I notice in the moment, the thoughts that I’m aware of as I’m writing.

Using this technique is quite common for writers. For me personally, stream-of-consciousness writing helps me to feel less critical of myself when trying to explain an idea that means a lot to me. I am less likely to censor myself when using this technique, allowing for a more authentic expression of what I want to communicate.

And once that first draft is on paper (or on my screen, I suppose), I edit.

Punctuation Isn’t Necessary (But Really, It Is)

Joyce had a very particular way of using punctuation marks, and this was especially clear in Ulysses. The very last episode (his term for chapter) is through the point of view of the main character’s wife, Molly Bloom, who at that point in the novel has only been talked about but never given a voice.

If you’re a grammarian, and Ulysses is the first thing you read by Joyce, the lack of punctuation in Episode 18, or “Penelope,” will likely drive you nuts. I would pull a direct quote from it, but the episode is eight sentences long even though it’s about 42 pages long. You do the math.

An interesting reason why he opted to not add punctuation to this chapter was to truly capture Molly’s racing thoughts as they jump from topic to topic. There’s a lot going on in her mind, and a ton of feelings to process, considering the reader doesn’t get to see a glimpse of her perspective throughout the novel. Within each sentence, her thoughts jump around, and the sparse punctuation makes it clear when there is a major shift in the topic of her thoughts.

Now, I’m definitely not saying that we all need to start writing without punctuation. While stylistically it makes sense why Joyce opted to not use punctuation for this character, the important lesson to learn here is that punctuation, whether it’s present or not, definitely makes a difference.

Without punctuation in that episode, it is quite challenging to follow, sometimes requiring a few read-throughs. It made me appreciate sentences with appropriately placed periods and commas; the ideas are just so much easier to digest in shorter sentences!

In my own writing, I’ve become more intentional with my use of punctuation, whether it’s a comma, a period, or an em dash (one of my favorites!). After reading part of a novel that so severely lacked punctuation (for a specific purpose), I better understood my own reasons and motivations for wanting to use punctuation to make my style more distinct, or my point more clear.

For example, I’ve started using em dashes to help show an emphasis on certain ideas or thoughts—like this one. And, I’ve started using conjunctions with commas to start my sentences, which helps my writing voice sound a bit more casual and conversational.

It’s the Little Things in Life That Matter Most

reading james joyce

Even the smallest of details can turn into a beautiful piece of writing.

Ulysses is a novel dedicated to minutiae: the banal, the trivial, the everyday. It all takes place in a single day, which means that the descriptions, even of the simplest events, can be quite descriptive. For example, when the main character, Leopold Bloom, is preparing a tray of food for his wife’s breakfast, it’s described as the following:

“Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry.”

Joyce often dedicated space in his novels to writing about details such as what someone was eating, what they wore, or how they walked. These observations make the reader feel intimately involved in the story, almost as if they are there with the character.

It may not seem like a big thing to others, but Joyce’s use of minutiae really helped me put things in perspective. (All puns intended.)

It’s easy to go through life focusing on the big events—major accomplishments or goals, achieving success. But it’s through slowing down to notice the small things that make up the everyday that can help us feel more connected to others, and part of a bigger thing beyond our own personal lives.

Making breakfast might seem like a mundane activity, but it’s by writing about these mundane activities that Joyce brings a new life to everyday, non-special moments, making them, in effect, special.

In my own writing, I’ve now tried to incorporate these moments and not leave out a detail that I think is too “mundane” or “not special.”

For example, when writing about my experience of being told that I wouldn’t be a good editor, I used details regarding the types of conversations (ahem, arguments) I’d have with other editors on the literary journal I worked for. Including details like this might seem rather, well, “everyday,” but they felt significant to me—that was the telling sign for me, at least, that I was passionate enough about something (editing) to feel the need to argue.

Especially if I’m writing about my own life, or a memory from the past, I’ve learned that these details are what make it clear to the reader why that moment mattered to me.

Future Implications of a Piece of Writing

Considering the volume at which I’m writing and editing, it’s often hard to think too far into the future (aside from goal setting, a practice I try to do at least once a month). Things are changing on a continual basis, with news alerts keeping us in a state of constant awareness. Usually, I’m just considering the here and now of how my piece of writing will impact my readers in a more immediate sense, along with how topical I’m being for a modern audience.

But some writers, like Joyce, consider the long-term effects of their writing. Joyce is famously quoted by Frank Budgen as saying this, in reference to his process of writing Ulysses: “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.”

Of course, Joyce is more likely referring to why he included so many itty-bitty details about Dublin, but the idea of constructing a city from a text is also an interesting philosophy that has influenced my own perspective on writing and words.

Words leave an impact. It’s important to construct them as thoughtfully as possible, because we don’t know what they might mean to people in the future, but they could mean a whole lot. Not that I think an article I write will help reconstruct a city after a major disaster, but there is a responsibility that writers have to be conscientious of the words they use, no matter the topic.

Considering the weight of each word has made a difference in how I write copy for my clients, whether it’s for a sales page, a product description, or an email newsletter. A “simple” change of a verb can make the difference between someone being interested in what you have to say and clicking on your link, or moving on to the next thing.

But I’m also going to get real meta here for a moment. When writing this article about Joyce, I understood the gravity of my decision to talk about a literary giant and how he influenced my writing. I chose my words carefully when considering how Joyce’s works had a specific impact on me, knowing that others who may read this will consider how Joyce or other writers have affected them as well.

What Writers Have Influenced You?

reading james joyce

A number of James Joyce’s manuscripts now reside at the Trinity College Library in Dublin.

Considering June is the month for Bloomsday (June 16, the day Ulysses takes place), I wanted to take some time to think about why I write the way I do, and the writers who have shaped my perspective on creating words, ideas, and stories.

As much as I shy away from being labeled as a Joycean scholar (because, I promise you, I am not one!), I do enjoy reading and writing about Joyce. But he, along with Ernest Hemingway, are literary legends who are often intimidating to tackle in academic spheres. Just because a writer is considered pretentious, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from their writing to apply to our own.

Whether you study him in an academic sense or you’re just a casual reader, Joyce’s writing can have a pretty big influence on your writing and your perspective on language and words.

Whether it’s writing sales copy or long-form content, fictional novels or motivational eBooks, ultimately what I’ve learned from reading Joyce is that your words matter—and hopefully, you’ll believe that, too.

About the Author Julia Hess

Julia Hess graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a Master of Arts degree in English. She has worked as a college writing tutor and instructor, a contractor at a major tech company, and a freelance editor and writer. An avid podcast listener, Julia provides editorial feedback, consultation, and detailed show notes for CYC’s podcast, Writers Rough Drafts.

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