Sitting down to write today, I have a thought: art begins in chaos. I like the high-tone sound of this, but the word chaos brings about a near panic. My leg has started to jiggle, and I’m squirmy in my chair. Chaos—that’s heavy-duty, man!
To settle my agitation, I’ll make some distinctions. Chaos at the beginning of a project differs from chaos erupting in the middle, when you’re halfway through and have to make a ninety-degree swerve: your story isn’t working, your character goes flat. Chaos in the beginning is something else—the first and crucial stage of creation, and just about every creation myth I’ve ever read, from the Bible to Greek myths to native folk tales, confirms this is so. Chaos precedes order.
Out of symbolic darkness Heaven, Earth and all her creatures emerge. The darkness is teeming with possibilities. This is the space where everything exists as formless potential, a void of fullness not emptiness.
For me as a writer, it’s a thrilling, scary place, the edge of what my logical mind knows and what my immediate senses perceive. In writing a novel, I’m creating a world that has never existed before, and I have to be very patient with myself and with the process, even if it takes years to complete a final draft. And it will! No doubt it will.
Every time I sit down to write I have to find a way to be at peace with the unpredictability inherent in the creative process and the necessary slowness involved in creation, while also staying fueled by rabid anticipation and a compulsion to discover a new fictional world.
(With fingers crossed) I’m happy to say I’m past the chaos stage in writing novel two. In fact, I’m deliriously happy to be in love with a set of new characters, moving forward chapter by chapter, hunch by hunch.
The third hexagram in the I Ching—Chun—is called Difficulty at the Beginning. I love that the Chinese sages understood that deep work of persevering in the face of hardships. The image of Chun is a blade of grass pushing up through the earth, hence difficulty at the beginning. It implies that the first meeting of Heaven and Earth arouses chaos, thunder and rain, but the chaos clears. Eventually the thunderstorm passes and there is ease again.
Difficulty at the Beginning was not written with writers in mind. It states a universal truth and gives advice on how to proceed. Which is probably why I’m writing about it today. Because don’t we all need faith in our capacity to experience all that crosses our path, and don’t we all need some outside voice reminding us not to give up?
To those of you reading this blog, especially non-writers, is this making sense to you?
Here’s another way to look at it: think of a blank movie screen. Start with one scene. Add a second, then a third. The first cut of a movie may contain two thousand frames, but to find the story worth telling, two thousand frames have to be pared down to two hundred And then reordered.
So, too, with a novel. On the first go-round, I’m figuring out how and where the story begins and ends, where it takes place—Wisconsin, California, medieval Poland, inside a dream? Does the book cover a day, a year, decades, centuries, or generations? I’m discovering my characters, listening very attentively as they reveal the stories coiled inside their stories, and like any good therapist, I listen with special attention to what my characters are hiding from themselves.
My task is to weave aspects of time, setting, character, and plot into a coherent whole. Moment to moment I make decisions based on logic, intuition, and some mixture of craft and imagination also acknowledging everything may change in a subsequent draft.
Always, I try to show up in my studio with an open mind and a receptive heart.
Hexagram three—Chun—explains that difficulty in the beginning promises supreme success through persevering. In life, as in art, the horse and wagon can become unhitched and difficulties pile up. What better advice for a writer than to recognize that hindrances occur during times of growth. “Difficulties arise from the very profusion of all that is struggling to attain form.”
When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.
I have to wonder what other first lines floated around in Kafka’s head before he set down this iconic one from his novella,
The Metamorphosis. How many possible first lines had he written and tossed aside? This one must have struck him with such truth and clarity that he dismissed all others. Teeming with possibility. We can’t know what we have inside if we are stopped dead-on by the confusion at the beginning.