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.



13 Responses to “Order Out of Chaos”

  1. Annie Says:

    It seems to me there’s a fine line. One of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave me was to let myself make a mess, and I doubt I would have finished my thesis without clinging to this. On the other hand, well, you know. There’s a relevant article in The Times today on self-compassion.
    My question is how. I have a system that mostly works for me, and I write back and forth on paper and screen, but I wonder if you, or anyone else, has found a simple way to index content as they go along. I end up going back to index, but it’s cumbersome and often frustrating and incomplete.
    Thanks again for all your thoughts on process.

  2. I have read that article in the Times today, and it was very important for me to read. Yes, compassion for ourselves, for the way we work. That’s key and crucial to our well-being as writers.

    There’s a program called Jer’s Novel Writer that indexes whatever you write (there’s a free trial, but the program itself, available through the internet, is inexpensive — he asks you to buy if you intend to use on an honor system). I’m going to use it for my next book.

    Zerubavel (Clockwork Muse) suggests outlining our work when it’s well in progress. That’s what I’m doing now — making an index to all my manuscripts.

    What I’m learning is how much I’ve already written that I thought needed writing! How far along I am! That’s thrilling. I might, next time round, start doing this from the first, but my first drafts are so provisional, I’m not sure that makes sense for me.

    But I will say this….Writing was far easier for me before computers. You couldn’t just write and write and write. Typing was tedious. If you wanted to insert something, you had to type the whole thing over again. Computers have made what I call “runaway writing” possible. In many ways, it’s harder to go from draft to book for me now because I have so much stuff.

  3. Anna Says:

    Thank you for this entry; it gives me courage. (Yes, I realize I’m coming late to this particular party; I hope you are still reading comments this far down.) You describe almost exactly my situation in dealing with a project conceived a good 30 years ago, for which I have a pile of notes made over the years, many of which are undoubtedly duplicates, along with several file boxes of source material that I organized and indexed way back then, but that have been since been supplemented with material that must be integrated with the original stuff as I refresh my memory about what-all is there. I go back and forth between energetically desiring the best for this project, especially as a matter of intrinsic interest and self-respect, and thinking I should give it up altogether. For now I have settled on consolidating my notes and organizing all the source material. When that is done, I’ll make a definitive decision. That seems to be best for morale while enabling me to proceed.

  4. ajuele Says:

    I, too, have a superficially neat office (and home, and car, and work desk at my day job…). I feel as though it is not just finding the order in the chaos that is important, but taking the time, as you have written, to assess how it was that this chaos came to be. It’s true, that as writers we seek patterns, but may fail to see one emerging right before our eyes. It’s difficult, especially in the middle of the research (which I love too), to not want to move on to the next part, discover the next thing about a past you didn’t know about. You write notes, you make reminders for yourself to track down this last name, this picture, this website, etc. So the pile of notes grows, and so does your work, and you’re excited, but you’re not realizing how much “work” organizing everything will be. You think maybe you’ll get around to it when you’re closer to completing a particular part of the work. I know, I’ve been there. Luckily for you, you’ve noticed the pattern repeating. Until I re-read this post I didn’t realize that I’ve followed a similar pattern. I have a sudden flash of insight, I right it down (usually away from my desk), I come home, I write about that idea, and then – here’s where it get’s tricky – if I have another idea the next day, I’ll just do it all over again. So when I finally get around to wanting to expand on that original piece, the notes are buried in a pile of other work. The time wasted has been immeasurable, and the cycle has repeated for years.

    Maybe stopping writing eventually to get organized is only way to break this pattern. But perhaps, writing about how chaotic everything became once everything is in order will help as well.

  5. Gi'Ana Walker Says:

    I think the biggest way to bring order out of chaos is to find a system that works for you. Every individual is different and I myself have a system that I call organized chaos. It works for mostly everything unrelated to school and work. When it comes to these two aspects of my life everything must have a folder and place on the desk/bookshelf. If not I would not be able to get any work done because everything would be everywhere. As you stated in one of your examples I would be making notes on a book that I already had a set of notes established for. When it comes to my writing everything has its order. Then I can pick a folder read what I wrote and see where the connections are between certain pieces in the same folder. Each folder holds pieces of work that hold a similar theme. Rereading all of those together helps spark my memory and brings another event to the surface. But the bottom line remains every person is different. You have to find a system that works for you.

  6. Fifth paragraph in I was hoping you would say that you gave up on organizing your piles of notes and felt liberated! I guess that is my process but then I immediately feel guilty and have to start my research and/or my drafts all over again. I vow, each and every time, that I will not allow myself to get to this messy point again. Of course, however, I once again find myself flipping through papers and yelling at my boyfriend asking him if he has seen one of my notebooks. I feel a bit at ease now because of what you pointed out, “our drive to create order stems, in part…from our chaotic childhoods”. Chaos, whether in my papers, my writing, my social life, is just a way for me to end up writing and heal whatever it is I need to heal. It is very inspiring to hear that I am not the only one making a mess out of things and maybe there really isn’t something wrong with my work process! Although I probably won’t organize the mess in my closet, I can always relax and say there’s always tomorrow.

    • writingalife Says:

      Some people think that disorder creates stress and that the simplest way to relieve stress is to organize something. I know that’s true of me. Sometimes it’s hard to do what’s good for us. Sometimes it’s hard to get started but when we do, we can’t imagine why it took so long to do this.

  7. Marianne Says:

    I have the opposite problem I am too organized, almost obsessive. I write notes in class then re-write them at home. All the info I jot down in my journal I re-write for my file. I try to keep my files in date order, the order they occurred. This way if I am looking for something I look in the file closest to the date and there it is. The problem arises when I find what I am looking for. I then start to look through everything. The memoir piece I began before my search now changes; I am back to square one. I don’t know what is better? I guess we have to find our own type of organization, what works best for us.

  8. ashley Leavitt Says:

    I read this post, and all the responses to it. I am impressed. Impressed that despite the chaos that seems to permeate all (present & self included) writers’ work habits, library and bookstore shelves are still lined top to bottom with bound material (yet questionably ever finished –for those, like I, who feel compelled to compulsively edit “finished” material). I wanted to address the issue of what to do with notes once a project is “complete.” I did the dumbest trick ever: I “finished” a piece of writing, thought it was as perfect as I could possibly make it, and threw away all the notes and reference material I had used during its creation. Now, I want to use this piece as the first installment of what I would like to be a series of unified, creative, independent, works. Noteless, I must start from scratch. The thought of it is almost overwhelming. What I’ve learned: keep those notes!

  9. Shayla D. Cook Says:

    I try to organize the structure of my piece as I am writing along with my notes I have stapeled together. When I do so, I hope to find more answers to any issue I may encounter or I already have encountered. Too much of anything is not good for you. Moderation is the key. Being too organized may cause one to miss mistakes in their written product. Also the person could be oblivious to mistakes which were made.Supressing the fact their work is flawed is a bit scarey. Thank you for practically saying it is okay to be a bit messy, but be mindful.

    Thank You Louise.

  10. David Felt Says:

    I agree that organization is key. For many years I have found that in every task I try to accomplish, whether work or school, my organization falls by the wayside. And you really start to feel the weight of all those books, notes, and papers. It seems to me that the state of your desk can be imposed into your mindset.

  11. As a beginning memoirist, in Professor Giunta’s memoir course, I also found myself writing multiple versions of the same event. I would do this for days, until, the day before class, I realized I didn’t have a completed piece. The unnecessary anxiety would well inside of me. I would choose the version I felt was the most “composed” and “organized” and revise it for several (very long) hours. Because I was frustrated and stressed, the work I was producing seemed frustrated and stressed. By the end of the process, I would be annoyed and exhausted. If I’m writing to heal, then why am I picking at the scab?
    When I write several versions of the same event, especially one that is painful to even remember, I feel as if I am picking at the scab of a wound that is just about to heal. The constant resurfacing and constant re-writing is damaging, not only to my work but also to myself. Picking at an old, hardened scab hurts. We hinder our body’s natural healing process by making the cut bleed again, by creating a worse scar. So, why do we do it? I know that, as a child, this was one of my bad habits. Now, as an adult, it’s, as you wrote, “…another way of ‘repeating’ the chaos some of us have lived with as children.” The familiarity of chaos lures me into its repetitive trap. I need to recognize my personal warning signs. I need to stop my hand before it reaches to take that first itch. And, as you wrote, “I’ll try very hard to respect my work, to respect my time, to institute order from the very beginning.”

  12. Jo Sanders Says:

    “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” (DeSalvo). This is me! This is how I work only I like to call it organized chaos and I will swear I know where everything is. I organize it only when the rest of my life is a mess or at the very least when I finally cannot find anything I’m looking for. I treat me writing in a similar fashion only will to organize it and make sense of it when it’s convenient or necessary. “A few theories of writing say that a profound impulse in writers is to restore order from chaos” (DeSalvo). I could not agree more. I too have taken seemingly random events from my life and tried to figure out how they relate to each other. Sometimes I even force connections just to make it fit. Working on my own memoir has helped me make sense of things and restore that certain sense of order I believe had been missing from my life. I too have found that respecting my work requires order. Order outside of myself definitely had helped to restore order within!

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