Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chaos Before Order: Some Tentative Thoughts on the Art of Writing

After five years’ worth of courses in the art of writing, I now find myself free from any institutional connections. It is a strange but liberating feeling, which isn’t to say I haven’t learnt a lot. Sitting back, now, I start to think about all those classes: the rules, the standards, the styles, the formats, the variations of the variations of style, and so on and so forth. What do I find? What do we find, if we look at “writing” in general? Arguably, we find a word that has no meaning; only many meanings, none of which is fixed and all of which lack stability. We find an order. In some way, we always find some sort of a coherent assemblage of words, be it an essay, short story, journal article, or what have you. It’s all about order, despite order being inherently disorderly.

What might be wrong with the idea of order, even if it is vague? I thought a lot about this throughout my schooling, and I still do. There may be nothing wrong with it. We need some sort of order to be able to interpret writing; it is the only way writing can be read (a very vague notion, but the author trusts that the reader gets the gist). But something always tugged at my shoulder about this. There was always an itching sensation. Somewhere on my body, every time I was taught any form of standard, would itch unbearably; and it would invariably be one of those hideous blitzkrieg itches which strikes without warning and leaves he or she who experiences it throwing fingernails everywhere in frantic search of the stingy little bastard.

Anyhow, this is sort of how it went, in a far less figurative sort of way. Why should I adhere to any standard? I found myself asking. I’m sure every writer has gone through a similar self-enquiry, a similar self-liberating critique of the entire (god damn) system. It seems reasonable, after all; I mean, we are essentially taught to write innovative, catchy pieces, while at the same time adhering to some form of at least sub-universal guidelines. A short story should be unique, it should be expressive of the individual—but must use tools and styles (and so forth) which are necessarily used by all, in order to be what it is supposed to be. There’s a lot wrong with these ideas, and a lot that is useful.

So far, so good. I can’t really, justifiably anyhow, have problems with what I’ve said so far. There are certainly many hiccups and issues abundant in adhering to standards, especially industry standards (which seem to unequivocally support generic merchandise, at least in a broad sense); but to be able to view something in a mode similar enough to a given author is necessary to communicate anything at all, even if it is absolutely nothing like what the author intended. This latter point cannot be emphasised enough.

So where is the problem?

It lies in the idea of chaos. Of course it does; it makes perfect sense. But how, exactly?

Before we start writing, we necessarily learn language. Language is a huge part of how we view the world, as has been pointed out and thoroughly discussed and debated by many philosophers and thinkers. What can be said simply, without going into the details of linguistic philosophical debates, is that as we learn language we associate linguistic objects and strings of objects with the external world. We wind up, essentially, with a linguistic system which we use to express ourselves vocally about the worlds around us, as well as the worlds within us. Once this system is at least fundamentally established, it becomes a sort of point of reference: we refer to it constantly, and eventually it becomes something we can do “without thinking”.

When it comes to writing (and arguably many other artistic or creative mediums), we necessarily assemble the words we have learnt (including all their extended structures, i.e. sentences, phrases, paragraphs, and so forth) and order them in such a way as to create a form of some kind, often linear though of course not always. This transcription, however, is not so simple.

The way we initially use words—that is, by speaking them—is jumbled and chaotic. Before we become literate, our writing is “all over the shop”; there is little order, repetition, low “standards” of grammar and punctuation, as well as many other incoherencies. It is nearer to chaos than more mature, “professional” writing. We initially write as we see the world intuitively, through our subjective eyes and thus through our immediate first-person experience of the world. It is essentially a chaotic literacy, whereby the way written words are assembled corresponds to a closer degree with what we are directly experiencing, or perhaps more correctly, how we remember ourselves to have experienced things. One is reminded of pieces written in childhood, whereby the rules are clearly not followed (for they are not yet learnt), and where descriptions are wild, fantastic, and even arguably incorporate far more intriguing elements of imagination than the finely tuned passages of “professional” authors.

An example might help here.

This is a passage from a piece of writing I wrote when I was eight years old, titled "The Animal Mask":

One day their was a boy he wanted to buy a animal mask but his mum sed no
so he snook it and suddenly bang he fell out of a tree then he got up and he took off his mask and he was in a animal world and all the birds came to him for some reason wait a miney he said I think this is a animal mask that that goes to a animal world he had a look around but all he could see was trees and animals he met a tolking dog and he could fly too
chapter two the tolking dog
he was very smart and he found aplace for him the next day he went fishing…

And so on.

This is basically a stream of consciousness piece of writing. There is no punctuation, everything is described haphazardly, yet still in a kind of flowing way. Specific things are being described, but you get the feeling that the little author wasn’t really selecting them—they just came to him that way. There was really no scene set, no characters introduced or developed: everything is described directly and without regard to the author’s lack of insight into exactly what is going on. If I had to imitate this style right now, I’d write “typing thinking a computer screen there are some dark windows a guitar next to me what time is it when should I stop this sentence am I getting the point through…” etc.

It isn’t really possible to recreate it genuinely, but the point is that the world being put onto paper by semi-literate beings—those without “knowledge” of the rules—leans more towards the chaotic world that is actually experienced. As we learn the rules of language and even when we begin to manipulate them, our writing becomes far more orderly.

Though of course, not at all completely orderly.

Just as a movie portrays an impossible reality of successive scenes with no temporal regard, so professional or at least coherent writing portrays a neat, aesthetically approachable, but impossible ordering of the world. Both the bulk of movies we watch as well as most pieces of writing we read are mere abstractions from the chaotic world we all experience (the world described by people yet to be conditioned by the systems of written language). This could be applied to other creative areas also—even to speech itself.

Nothing terribly new has been said. There is an awkward sigh from the reader, who wanders where this is all going. And so, a question ensues.

Can order be taught before the chaos from which it is born is acknowledged?

Not an easy one. What is this bundle of words getting at? you might say. Is this where is gets a bit juicier, so I can stop forcing myself to read this?


Chaos is not taught, generally speaking. We are taught to order most things, not only in writing, but in life. Chaos is what there actually is, as opposed to order, which is what we attempt to create (I am aware that this sentence is loaded with meanings, but hopefully they converge in some general area and help the point along). I have to choose every one of the words I am presently typing—in fact, I just hesitated twice, made a few mistakes, backspaced countless times and am currently rethinking how I should end this sentence, all as I am typing it. I am merely picking pieces from the chaotic world, which is not limited by my objective-subjective worlds, which is in fact not limited at all. For in the chaotic world the subjective and objective are not distinguished; they flow together, always, in a constant stream; and writing is, of course, extracted from this chaotic realm and thus always contains the elements inherent in it: even stream of consciousness styled writing only attempts to tap into the stream. In fact, it is not possible; there are too many things going on at once. Order is essentially an attempt at taming chaos; and in a way, the two lead into one another constantly.

So what if we don’t get taught chaos¬—why should we? It seems a fair question. But in my experience, I have found that the only really fluent, orderly, relatively comprehendible writing I have been able to do has come after accepting and contemplating chaos. And this makes sense to me. How can we go to school and get taught methods of order, when we have not yet grasped the chaos from which we were born and into which we were, and are all constantly, thrust? There is nothing in the lived experience that even remotely resembles the order represented in writing, or media and art of many kinds. To write without realising that one is abstracting from an intensely chaotic experience is akin to smoking without knowing how to inhale: an essential element is missing from the experience.

Before I go on, I have to mention that I am not trying to make any groundbreaking statements about what it is to write and what writing is good or bad or what not. That is subjective and extremely complex. Nor am I trying to say anything terribly concrete about the matter (the tentativeness of all my own assumptions has hopefully been inferred by the reader). What I am trying to get at is likely something already understood by many great writers, perhaps has been understood for a long time; nevertheless, I think it is worth bringing to the surface for those under the impression that the order we are taught in writing is the more important, or essential, aspect. It is commonly known that order and chaos go hand in hand, and to understand one the other must also be understood. In a funny way, they are part and parcel of one ongoing, dynamic process.

I honestly believe I have benefitted from contemplating chaos alongside order, not just in writing either. Industry standards, and any standards enforced and taught in writing, of course have their place; as I mentioned, they are necessary (though potentially evil) in writing. I do not think such standards should be adhered to austerely, or even at all if one feels so inclined (some coherence, even if it is implied or interpreted by the tiniest demographic, does seem appropriate, however—unless one is writing purely for oneself, in which case there are no real rules. In the latter case, personally developed symbols could even be used, interpretable by no one else but the writer). One can easily create a piece which is nearer to chaos than to order, and have it be enjoyed by many readers; in fact, the innovations observable in writing in the modern world seem to be signs of a return to more chaotic styles, as opposed to the more “proper” styles of classical writers (this is arguable, of course, for example if chaos and order are interpreted as relative).

What I have written is itself not intended to be particularly orderly: looking back, it is really a kind of “thinking out loud”. But the urge to expose a general lack of recognition of chaos inspired me to write about it in relation to writing itself. It seems evident that all things “orderly” are put forth in educational institutions, while the chaos from which this order is born, and is inextricably bound to, seems to be, for the most part, ignored. This is perhaps a reflection of a larger lack of recognition, which in turn could be part of something even larger—most likely, many things. Ignoring the chaos in putting down words is directly associated with ignoring the chaos of experience. It must be emphasised that I am not suggesting that to write chaotically is “truer” in any sense, but rather than an appreciation of this chaos seems, at least to me, to be an efficacious way of improving how we portray our various styles of order, or more precisely, our degrees of chaos.

I only know myself as a human body, with arms, legs, a neck, shoulders, and so forth, because I know that I am really none of these things; they are merely name-tags, attached not only to the constantly moving processes which underlay them, but to the indefinable flow beyond¬. Neither could exist, however, without the other.

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