The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Progress of a Story: Grace; or, Chaos


by Andrew Tibbetts

I think a lot about my writing. I plan it. I develop theories. Very, very rational. Very right-brained. (Have I got the correct hemisphere? The goody-goody one?) I trained as a social scientist in the ‘soft science’ of people’s lives, so spinning long complicated theories comes second nature to me. Ah, Theory! Also, I trained as a composer at the tail-end of ‘total serialism’ so making algorithmic charts for works of art also comes easily. (Check out Alex Ross's FANTASTIC website! Here in the glossary is a brief description of 'total serialism' and an excerpt from Boulez's "Structures 1a" for two pianos.)

And then stuff just happens. But let me back up:

After the initial idea occurred to me (by thinking long and hard about what my collection ‘needed’,):
-I mapped out my new story as a set of incidents with the same general arc. I created a ratio based on the Fibonacci series so that each incident, and each section of each incident, would be proportionally shorter, but that the ratio of sections-within-incident would be the same as the ratio of incidents-within-story.
-I thought about what prose style made the most rational sense and ran everything through a set of rules derived from the homage-d author.

And then I got an idea in the mail and changed absolutely everything on a whim.

In a religious sense, ‘grace’ is any un-earned benefit bestowed by an unpredictable deity. Wikipedia defines it as ‘unmerited (divine) favour’. It’s a handy concept to muddy up the fact that the folks following the big guy’s supposed rules aren’t necessarily doing well. Sometimes the wicked prevail and the good suffer. But it’s not just a rationalization for a capricious universe; it’s kind of a beautiful and mysterious idea! You can’t control everything. And love is more powerful than any tally sheet or tick chart. Sometimes mom takes you out for ice cream, ‘just because’.

For me, a secular application of the idea of ‘grace’ is that of the irrational creative urge. No matter how much I thinkthinkthink and force the ideas to trot logically one from the next, sometimes something will just plop itself in my lap. And there really is no explaining.

I’ve long decided that that doesn’t mean I won’t do the work. I won’t sit around and wait for grace. That’s the whole point: you can’t expect it. Like the Spanish Inquisition—no one expects it!

Flannery O’Connor, great short-story writer, defender of grace, and peacock owner, wrote about the sudden unfurling of the glorious peacock tail. She could never bring it about, couldn’t coax it out of her birds. However, without rhyme or reason, a sudden glory of gods-eye colour would bloom from the back of these otherwise chickens.

Now, really, there’s probably some rhyme or reason. It’s just we can’t see it. Behind Flannery, a little peahen just batted her eyelids, but Flannery didn’t catch it. Things are too complicated to parse out all the causes of all the effects.

That’s the new idea that’s supplanted ‘grace’. That’s ‘chaos’—the idea that apparently incomprehensible phenomena can be revealed as the complicated interaction of several fairly simple rules. There are turbulence scientists, who map this stuff. There’s also Pierre Boulez’ piano sonatas which are the collision of a short mathetical formula applied to very dimension of a piece of music, but which end up sounding like random chaos. Herds of different sized cats walking across the keys. That’s the old idea of chaos, as complete disorder.

So, perhaps, my surprise idea that came along to completely change my story wasn’t irrational at all. Perhaps it makes total-sense, just a very complicated sense at a level beyond my immediate viewpoint. Whatever. I’ll take it either way. Grace; or chaos—keep it coming!

So, finally, after several months of fits and starts and stops, that pooped out a few hard nuggets of tight-assed prose, my story suddenly wrote itself in a late-night blaze of activity. Ta-da! I have a first draft.

Last night I posted it to my on-line writers’ review site. And now the story moves into the next phase: revision. And revision. And revision.

Stayed tuned.
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This blog-post is part of a series documenting the creation of a short-story, which, as of last night is called, “My Father, Escape-Artist-Extraordinaire!” Earlier posts are: Dad, Immigration, The Inner World of the North American Male, Mess, Doubts, Research, Versions, and The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Shaula said...

I'm fascinated by the Fibonacci sequence and other forms of constrained writing. And I think what you've done is perfectly appropriate: start off with constraints as a guideline, and then let the writing go where it wants to go. :)

Sun Mar 29, 04:07:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I love the capriciousness of grace. I've only ever once written a whole story at one sitting, and it was a very short one. But, every so often, something just "comes to me," and I'm grateful.

Wonderful, intelligent post, Andrew.

Thu Apr 02, 12:29:00 AM EDT  

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