Order Out of Chaos
February 28, 2011
And that’s what I’ve been doing – trying to do – for the past several weeks, though it feels like an eternity. Restore order to all the notes and drafts and outlines and scribbles I have for the book I’m working on now, the father book.
I’ve been working hard for the past few years at this book. Reading scores of books. Checking out official naval records online. Watching hours of documentary footage about World War II. After a day’s work, I’d paperclip my notes together, and throw them into a basket, thinking, “I’ll organize this someday.” The research itself was thrilling. I love research. I love finding out what a street looked like in, say, 1941. I love collating what was happening in my parents’ lives with what was happening during the war. So there were notes about them, notes about world events, notes about the vessels he served on, notes about the island he served on, notes about what rationing was like during the war, notes about New York City and Hoboken (where we lived) during the war. Notes, notes, notes.
To find anything, I’d have to take out my wire baskets filled with notes and search through them. It would take a long time. It would get in the way of my writing. But still I didn’t stop to organize my notes. I love research; I love writing; I hate filing; I hate organizing. My study is superficially neat. But don’t open a drawer, don’t look in the closet where I keep my notes and drafts and books.
Then there was the day when I pulled a book out from the middle of an untidy pile – books leaning against one another, piled on top of each other in no particular order – and the whole pile came crashing down on me, hitting my foot (which I’d broken last year). Fortunately, I had sturdy shoes on and so there was no harm done. But when I stopped to take stock of the chaos in my closet, I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I’d stopped seeing just how messy everything was.
It’s difficult to explain how many pieces of paper I needed to sort through, how many books I needed to organize, how many drafts of my work in progress I needed to sort, identify, and file. But consider this. I’m about halfway done, and I’ve already stored two file cabinets’ worth of stuff and I’m not nearly done. Days and days and days of my writing life sorting through stuff. And why did I let it get to this?
Well, a few theories of writing say that a profound impulse in writers is to restore order from chaos. We take the seemingly random events in our lives and figure out how they relate to each other. We write the patterns we’ve discovered. Our insights give us a sense of purpose. Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, we’re creating order from the seeming chaos of life.
For many of us who are writers, our drive to create order stems, in part, some theoreticians say, from our chaotic childhoods. Our writing is a way for us to heal ourselves, to turn the chaos of our childhoods into something meaningful, ordered, beautiful.
And that’s no doubt why, almost every time I write a book, I repeat that pattern, not only in my writing, but also with the drafts I write, with the notes I take, with the research I do. Chaos, order. Chaos, order. Chaos, chaos, chaos. Order, order, order.
Is this necessary? Frankly, I don’t think so. Chaos in the stuff we use to do our work causes anxiety. Causing ourselves anxiety by creating chaos, I’m learning, is another way of “repeating” the chaos some of us have lived with as children. I’m not proud to admit this. But I’m being as honest as I can because I suspect there are other writers out there with this tendency.
So what am I doing? I’m not letting myself write (apart from this post) until everything (and I mean everything) is filed, indexed, noted. I’m not letting myself proceed with this book until I understand the work I’ve already done, until I understand what still needs doing.
I’ve found, for example, two sets of notes from the same book. This has happened to me more than once. It shouldn’t. I read a book; take notes; throw the notes into a pile. A year or so later, I find the book, I read it; take notes; throw those notes into a pile. What a waste of my energy!
I write a draft of, say, the day my father goes to war. I write around the book. A few months later, I write another draft. And later, another, and another. I have seven different versions of the same scene, I learned today, which was why I had to take a break from my sorting and write in here because it was very hard for me to learn what I’ve been doing with this book. Writing the same thing over and over again. I’m not talking revision, here. I’m talking a new version. So what I need to do now is collate all the versions, see what I have that’s new in each version, pick the best-worded scene. Enormous, unnecessary work.
Some one might argue that I should honor my process; someone might say that that’s how I get my effects, the kinds of things critics point to as being singular in my work. Maybe. But probably not.
So where am I now? I’m happy to say that my research notes are in order. I can now find anything I need. I have an index to them. Everything is in filing cabinets. I feel very good about having accomplished that. But I’m in the midst of organizing my drafts. Hundreds and hundreds of pages. I know that I can’t move on until I do this.
So having recognized this pattern, what will I do differently from now on?
I’ll try very hard to respect my work, to respect my time, to institute order from the very beginning. I’ll try very hard not to use my process to recreate the chaos I lived with as a child. I’ll try very hard not to use the chaos in my process to create needless anxiety. I know this won’t be easy; lifelong patterns aren’t easy to break. But I’m ready to take this on. And I vow that with the next book I write, I will institute order in my notes, my drafts, my scribbles from the first moment I start to work. I only hope that I can.