Chaos Theory For Writers Part One

How much chaos do you have in your life right now? My guess is that many of you have responded with a resounding reply such as ‘loads’, ‘plenty’ or ‘more than enough’. For most people, the idea of stimulating chaos deliberately within their daily routine, is anathema, but for writers, I believe it is essential.

Chaos is generally, I think, misunderstood and misrepresented in our culture. We are encouraged to believe, from a young age, that linear thinking, pre-planning and organisation are habits – maybe skills – which should be learned and executed in order to live a successful life. Nevertheless, a huge percentage of our population spends its time in reaction to unpredicted events, in addiction-related behaviours and in stress-relieving therapies, simply because their lives are ‘spiralling out of control’.

I hesitate to suggest that the reason for this collective inability to lead peaceful and sustainable lives probably lies in the very assumption that chaos is to be avoided at all costs. (No, I don’t: more on the differences between chaos, randomness and crisis, another time.)

I was led to reflect on chaos this week when the local summer weather hit the landscape big-time – we are, after all, now into Celtic summer. Beltane was celebrated at the start of the month. One of the fascinating effects of the change in temperature and light levels is the sudden increase in ‘canal-fly’ populations.

I don’t know the exact species involved – I can never get close enough to view one in detail – but my local canal boasts thousands, maybe even millions, of these tiny creatures, hovering above the water in swarms, every year. And every year, I find I’m drawn to watching them more and more closely, as their flight patterns and collective behaviour intrigue me greatly. (You’re listening to a former entomologist, here.)

On first encountering them, I was struck by their apparent busy-ness; there seemed to be a veritable fly-highway above the water’s surface, with a myriad of beings travelling in all directions at astonishing speeds. But, as I honed in on the detail, I discovered that the majority of the flies were actually moving either north-south or south-north along the length of the canal. (I suppose it could be east-west: I’m not much good at direction, but you get my point.)

Only a few flies deviated from this path, and those only to drift gently upwards above the mainstream before descending to join in the mass rush again. What was more, if I chose to follow the route of an individual fly, rather than just take an overview, I discovered that hardly any of them were moving at speed at all. Most were dawdling alongside their neighbours, either in one direction or the other. It was the effect of the two opposing directions that created the illusion of speed.

And I further discovered that no individual fly ever went beyond a designated end-point at the edges of the population. Each fly, as it encountered more space around it on reaching the outer limits, promptly turned round and picked up the stream flowing back in the opposite direction. Until it reached a similar turning point at the other end of the group and repeated the operation.

And because all the flies are intent on remaining a part of the group, none of them ever wanders off onto the tow path where I might get a better look at them.

The impression one gains by paying attention to an individual fly is a life of gentle meandering. A great lesson in taking a different perspective, I think. Perhaps by viewing our own chaos from another angle, we’ll gain something of value there, too. (Please take note that it has not escaped my notice that it was by focusing in on the detail that I was enabled to see beyond the chaos, whereas the usual recommendation is one should take a ‘bigger’ view in order to do this. A nice paradox, probably warranting a further blog.)

The biggest value of chaos, I believe, is that it is generally unformed. We think of things being chaotic when we cannot assign a known structure or pattern to them. It is easy to be scared by that because the way in which you need to respond is not obvious. However, the beauty of the conundrum here is that if you can’t respond in an obvious way, you will have to be creative. And that’s where writers and artists come in.

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, if you write only by following the rules, you’ll never create anything new or authentic. And too much structuring can be seriously detrimental to the health of your creation.

I’ve recently returned to my regular writing practice, having taken a serious detour to get my first book printed and published, and I discover that there’s a very good reason why I left off where I did in Book 2. It’s absolute chaos!

I have, as they say, written myself into a hole. Dead bodies, missing witnesses who may be suspects, no motives, misleading ID’s … it’s great! I’m going to have a whale of a time creating an orderly story out of this chaos!  I’m really looking forward to it.

 

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One thought on “Chaos Theory For Writers Part One

  1. Whilst chaos is all around us, many see it as an aberration. The idea that chaos is simply a perception of non-linear change is a popular way of describing this phenomenon. I prefer to see it as the norm. It is everywhere, always present, and always pervasive. This, however, creates a psychological problem for us all. To help us cope with this situation we create order out of the chaos. The order we see around us is an illusion created to give us psychological security in a chaotic world. Our common failing is to assume the illusion is truth rather than accept the truth of chaos

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