There’s no avoiding it, good writing starts messy. At the start of each semester when I give my college writing students this advice, they stare at me as if I were crazy. A few invariably respond that they’ve never heard of such a thing before. Throughout their education as writers, they’ve learned to place a high value on getting it (no matter what it is) right the first time. Chaos is something to be avoided at all costs.
Writing doesn’t work that way, not creative writing that teases out life’s deeper meanings and moves readers or shakes them up and causes them to think. When we focus on the finer points of self-expression during our first attempts to put ideas on paper, the good stuff eludes us. We become so busy trying to sort out the commas and get the spelling right that – although what we’ve written may be polished, well organized and technically competent – it lacks substance and fire.
Good writers may have a general idea about the plots of their novels or the characters that will populate their short stories, but rarely are they certain precisely how these tales will turn out. If you’ve ever sat down fully intending to write a poem or an essay about one thing only to find that another has emerged, you know the feeling. After this has happened to us often enough, we learn to make the most of those surprises when they arrive.
Eventually the best writers not only learn to tolerate a confusion of ideas and a tangle of sentences, they deliberately invite them into their lives. They volunteer to serve as the containers for this primordial creative stew. Resisting the urge to grab the dictionary or the grammar handbook before their work has taken shape, instead, they let the ambiguity and uncertainty simmer and ferment and grow undisturbed for hours or days.
That isn’t easy. After all, confusion is not a comfortable state. Something inside of us craves rhyme and reason. It demands, neat packages, tight schedules, and no loose ends. We fear the unknown.
Nonetheless, creation stories from many cultures around the world have taught for centuries that chaos, whether it is called the firmament or by another name, is a prerequisite for the birth of material world. More recently, physicists have confirmed that events in nature arise from chains of seemingly chaotic and unrelated happenings. That doesn’t necessarily exclude the possibility that there is plan behind this randomness, one that we aren’t able to see. Says creativity trainer Jordan Ayan, “Chaos is the Universe’s trickster.”
I have a Nietzsche quotation taped to my computer desk: “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” I keep it there for the times I’ve given up hope that my chaotic ideas will ever shape up. Seconds away from forcing my work into an outline or a formula borrowed from the how-to-write books that line my shelves, I glance at that quotation and take a deep breath. Maybe the mess of words on my monitor is a positive sign of something better to come. A little chaos is a good and necessary thing.
Write about a time you were filled with turmoil of ideas and uncertainty about what form they would take, a time when you felt confused about what to do with these ideas. How long did it last? What did it feel like to be in this creative limbo? What lessons did that time teach you? What did you birth at the end of that time?
Market: Calling all Celts! The Chicken Soup people are at it again. This time they are gathering 101 stories for a new book called Chicken Soup for the Celtic Soul. Stories should run from 300-1,000 words and be inspirational and true. The focus is the heroic Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Manx and Breton spirit around the world from yesterday, today and tomorrow. Authors retain the rights to their stories and will be paid $300 if their stories are published in the book. For more information, visit the website, www.celticsoul.com/ or submit stories to:
Chicken Soup for the Celtic Soul
C/o Walters International Speakers Bureau
Glendora, CA 91740
Conference: Diane Glancy will be headlining the Wyoming Writer’s Conference this year. The gathering will be held June 7-8 at the Riverton Holiday Inn in Riverton, Wyoming. Award winning author, poet, and National Endowment for the Arts fellow, Glancy will be leading workshops in Creative-nonfiction and scriptwriting. Mystery writer Carol Caverly, Nebula Award winner Bruce Holand Rogers and photographer/cowboy poet Mike Logan will also conduct workshops.