“Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, he must look foolish to the crowd.” The I Ching
The I Ching has given us many gems of wisdom: The symbol for crisis is also the symbol for opportunity, for example. But there’s brilliance in chaos? Now that can be a little hard to swallow, especially when you consider the definition of “chaos” in my handy Compact Oxford English Dictionary: “complete disorder and confusion.”
Chaos as a useful, even necessary ingredient of beginning something great — what a novel idea. And yet, in our own ways, more writers than would like to admit it have probably experienced their share of mind-numbing, finger-biting chaos on the way to producing something truly new and wonderful for the world.
I can still remember a talk that the writer Elizabeth Strout gave in which she described her feelings of utter confusion and hopelessness when writing her Pulitzer-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge. At one point, she told the audience. she rented a hotel room and sat on the floor with pages and pages of her manuscript and literally began moving them around, hoping to come up with some kind of structure that worked. Chaos. And I remember another Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Junot Diaz, talking about how it took him years and years to write his winning novel, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — and how he gave up and put it away for a while. Chaos. And how about Kathryn Stockett, author of the bestseller, The Help? She used to hole herself up in hotels like Elizabeth and rewrite and rewrite her novel after each rejection from agents, struggling to make it better; she found the agent who finally sold her book only after 61 tries. Chaos.
So let’s revisit the idea of chaos in our writing. If you’re in limbo with a project — if you feel it’s out of control. a mess, falling apart, the center isn’t holding, and so on — here’s an idea we can
all use: Grab a cup of coffee, or tea, drink deeply, then breathe deeply, invoke and thank the muses, and remember that: In crisis lies opportunity. Then click your heels and say three times: Chaos frees me. Chaos frees me. Chaos frees me. Just kidding!
Still, on my own writing journey, checkered and confused and disorderly as it has been, I’ve often found that there’s a natural “fall apart” stage for any creative project — and sometimes more than one (see post, Fall-apart Stage). In these moments, some truly thorny problem arises — no a whole thorn bush! — that makes me feel my manuscript is a mess. It could be my plodding plotting or structure or that my main character lacks agency (no small dilemma!). Whatever, it is, if I can just remember that this is the natural order of things, and that it’s perfectly OK, even positive, to feel lost and confused, then I can look at the swirl of ideas whirling around me and pluck something from it that makes my story better, stronger, truer.
OK, Coffee, chaos or chaos, coffee — whatever works for you. Write on!