Relearning how to write and create by embracing chaos
I call myself a writer (it’s the unimaginatively consistent refrain to all of my personal profiles), and I do write for a living.
But sometimes I feel like a total fake.
The ultimate proof for this is an inspiring-turned-depressing document called “What to Write,” which I came up with at the start of the year. It’s a compilation of article topics and fiction ideas that I was supposed to check off one by one. But predictably — as is the fate of most New Year resolutions —most of these never came to life.
I did try. I’d open Word, Google Docs, or even Medium. Then I’d chicken out, escape away to another tab, and shelve it to sometime in the future.
When there was no client to check on me and only self-imposed deadlines were keeping me in line — when I had to create for myself — I’d freeze up.
This destructive habit has led to months, even years, of lost writing, and it’s rather wasteful because creative work has precise timing. Its raw material comes directly from our inner state, which shifts kaleidoscopically as we go through our lives. When I get this electric jolt from an insight and stifle the urge to express it and reflect on it, I won’t always lose track of it — but months later, it wouldn’t have the same essence anymore, and perhaps I’ll no longer find it relevant or compelling enough to write (strongly) about.
The potential dies. We forget.
Breaking the Frozen Sea Within
Kafka describes a good book as one that acts like an “axe for the frozen sea within us.”
That metaphor always stuck in my head because it’s such an appropriate description of what it feels like to be unable to write. Whether it goes by the guise of perfectionism, procrastination, or writer’s block, it’s a painfully common problem in art and Steven Pressfield captures it well when he describes the creative process as a war against resistance.
Here’s a train of thought that anyone who has ever had to write a report/essay/poem/anything at all can relate to:
Crap, I don’t know what to write. I have my outline here, but it’s not helping me get that first sentence down. What’s a good opener? Okay, let’s lower standards — what’s a non-sucky opener? My thoughts are all over the place. I’m not even sure if I have something worthwhile to say or if it’s just a drab regurgitation of what’s already out there. Maybe I should have done more research. Oh, let’s just do this later, ideas might pop out of the blue by then…
Anxiety — followed by procrastination — is such a classic response to writing because, even when you’ve prepared a detailed spreadsheet of what each paragraph is going to be about, you’re still walking in blind. There’s no guarantee that what’s in your head will match the general direction that your piece will take. Every word is a step into the dark, and it’s fascinating how just by choosing one sentence over the other, you can end up in different territory.
Writers — and all other artists — value when flow takes over, but that requires a certain loss of control, a willingness to be spontaneous and to let the words move through you rather than the other way around. It also means that perfectionism needs to be stifled, because criticize too much, keep hitting the backspace button while in the process, and self-expression starts to stumble and becomes stilted.
Despite being aware of this, I still froze up. The knowledge itself wasn’t the axe.
Counterintuitively, I had to draw to learn how to write again.
The Joy of Making Ugly Art
I don’t draw that much, so my drawing skills now resemble that of my 7-year-old self’s. Suffice to say, I have no delusions at all about my artworks being worthy of portfolios or non-sarcastic social media posts, and I’d be the first to poke fun at whatever I create.
Because of the lack of expectations, drawing — for fun, out of boredom or the desire to escape thinking for a while — turned out to be surprisingly liberating.
Whatever I make doesn’t have to be beautiful. It could be ugly and cringe-worthy, and that’d be perfectly okay.
The result of this was that drawing was enjoyable. I was scratching my head about tutorial instructions, cursing at technical glitches, and coming up with metaphorical insults about my work, but it was all in good stead, amidst a spirit of playfulness that was more concerned with experimenting and exploring possibilities rather than worrying about the end result. And afterward, regardless of the flaws and amateur-ness of it, I’d feel a warm afterglow, a sense of pride about how worthwhile it is to simply create.
When was the last time I felt like that about writing?
When was the last time I wrote with joy and revelled in the process?
I couldn’t remember. From being an activity that I delighted in and loved, it had become almost exclusively a means to prove myself, to gather validation so that the entire value of it hinged on the audience’s reaction. Only art that was well-liked mattered; ugly art was pointless and a waste of time, a failure on my part.
With that kind of mindset, writing weighed down on me like a chore and a burden: a test that I had to pass, because it dictated my worth as an artist.
That sapped all the joy out of it, and also the momentum. End result: dozens of unfinished drafts and ideas that were never imbued with enough confidence to become reality.
To Create, Begin with Chaos
There is an illusion that’s perpetuated by typing and both the digital and printed word. Writing — made up of uniform letters flawlessly composed line after line — is clean, orderly, and linear, and putting down the last punctuation is like sealing a letter: it’s ready for shipping.
There’s an unspoken pressure for everything to be correct on the first go, but our minds don’t work like that. Our thoughts are often a jumbled mess that we have to wrangle into something coherent.
While it’s possible to be extremely inspired so that everything falls into place right away, the first draft is usually for word vomit — pure creative fervour, because what’s important is that you get your ideas down on the page, all other considerations be damned. “Write first, edit later” is such a famous writer’s adage because it works.
Creativity is meant to be chaotic. As Jordan Rosenfeld eloquently says:
“Creation is an act of chaos. I’m sorry to bring up the birth metaphor, but if you’ve ever seen a birth, human or animal, you know they are messy, wild affairs full of moaning and fluids and pain and frustration. Frankly, writing is not so different… We create because it is full of wonder and awe, even though it hurts a lot, or at the very least causes grown adults to wander around in public muttering under their breath and eating themselves into donut comas.”
We’re meant to get our hands dirty, and that’s when the magic happens. The process isn’t as transparent with our word processors and abuse of the backspace button, but consider that this is what Charles Dickens’s “The Christmas Carol” originally looked like:
That’s a lot of erasures, scribblings, and outright revisions — and compared to other manuscripts, it’s already pretty easy to read.
If the first draft is for ideation, then the second is for editing (you can let your inner critic take the spotlight) and reorganizing towards clarity. And for longer projects like novels, that might extend all the way to ten drafts. But the first step, really, is chaos: it’s the stuff that the universe is made of, and it’s what makes a piece of writing alive, raw, and vibrant.
Writing is Full of Fears
All art is terrifying. Who’s genuinely excited about delving headfirst into chaos, much less chaos that comes from the self?
You’re never in full control. You might be planning to talk about the weather, but then you’re segueing into the numerous reasons why staring at a banana peel for long enough can make you cry, or that ultra-controversial opinion of yours that got you yelled at on the street, and you become conscious of putting so much of yourself out there.
Aside from the vulnerability, you have to be willing to make mistake after mistake, and to correct yourself after, but also to forgive the imperfections and let it be.
In a sense, writing touches on our relationship with ourselves: how comfortable are we with who we are?
I read about an interesting experiment before. It stated that people who focused on making only one product that’s as perfect as possible improved less in skill than people who made as many products as they could, with average standards.
In light of this, although it’s hard to speak in absolutes, I suppose that what I believed was wrong. Assuming that you’re not in the sticky situation of clients breathing down your neck about stats and KPIs, making art is never a failure because each attempt counts as practice and takes you closer to mastery. Consistency is said to be key in content, and that’s partly due to the quality of your content getting better over time.
Likewise, after a string of ugly and mediocre art, you might suddenly produce something that’s amazing and lovely — gold among the dross — and yet it’d be wrong to credit only that. Every so-called failure was fundamental to its creation. So when people admire your masterpiece, the secret is that they’re also paying homage to everything else that came before it, even the terrible and embarrassing ones and those that you kept only for yourself and never showed anyone else.
None of it is ever a waste.
When we view our writing from this angle, it becomes easier to accept the chaos and dance with it, and re-experience the joy that brought us to write in the first place.