Chaos Theory

by J.T. Ellison

I have a framed print in my office. It sits on the shelf, looming over me. It’s an image from the I Ching.



Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be Chaos.
Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish to the crowd

I spend a lot of time looking at this symbol, at the quote below it, thinking about what it means to me. I bought the print because I was attracted to the word. Chaos. It signifies so much. A chaotic mind. A chaotic life. A willingness to let the universe dictate your course. I didn’t know it at the time, but the I Ching explores the dynamic balance of opposites, seeking to ultimately predict the unpredictable. Bringing tranquility to a chaotic world through a mystical yet scientific method of prediction.

My Dad has books on the other spectrum of chaos theory, ones that I read with fascination. Nonlinear dynamics that are influenced by initial conditions, and grow out of their seeming non-reaction. Minute changes in the initial event can cause widespread change. Boggles the mind. It boggles my mind especially, since I’m not all the way down with Quantum Physics. It was the less esoteric term for Chaos Theory — the Butterfly Effect — that gave me a glimpse into this world. A easy way for me to understand the theory of Chaos.

A butterfly flaps it’s delicate wings, and on the other side of the world, a hurricane develops.

I see the correlation between the I Ching’s version of Chaos and the Rocket Scientists. Both seek to tame the untameable, to explain the unexplainable. But the basic thought is that no matter what happens, whether you mean it or not, you are affecting change.

I commented on Toni’s post last week that something odd happened when I watched A WONDERFUL LIFE on Christmas Eve this year. It’s my tradition, a chance to remind myself that there’s a reason for everything. But I’ve never seen myself in George Bailey. Why would I? Outside my friends and family, how have I affected change? I’m not looking to cure cancer, or change the world. I’ve always just been a girl who does her thing.

Watching the movie, I was struck by a crazy thought. This year, I’ve become the butterfly.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not having delusions of grandeur here. But my teaching experience last weekend solidified the feeling. I did affect a change, directly, on a group of students. It may not be a positive change, but it was change nonetheless. You know, I don’t have kids. I’ve never taught. My first book came out two months ago and that’s the first real communication I’ve had with the outside world in years. I’ve never been in a position to affect change. I’ve never thought that I wanted to.   

The class I taught had ten students. The goal for the weekend was for them to walk out of the class with a flash short story, 1,000 words, that had solid characters, a definable setting, and a plot. To help them get to this point, I devised a series of writing exercises that would give them all these items, utilizing pictures I’d found that I felt would cause a reaction — good, bad or indifferent. By the end of the first day, we’d built 5 characters — two men and three women, developed three different settings, and then moved into plot. I thought it would be fun to use the seven basics — Man vs. Man, Nature, Supernatural, God, Self, Technology and Environment. I made up "The Wheel of Plot", each person spun the wheel and had to write their story based on the random plot they landed on.

I had one more exercise at that point, but they’d had enough. I didn’t realize just how taxing the session had been, how far they’d been pushed. Working out of the comfort zone was the point, and man, had I ever pushed them. They’d exited the comfort zone during the very first exercise, and I didn’t realize it. A good lesson for me. I’m a working writer, which means I write daily and don’t think too much about how much I actually output. Some people write in their spare time, and need lubrication. 

I was so thrilled the following morning, when the writers read their work aloud for a group critique session. They’d performed brilliantly. The stories were strong, the characters developed. There was one that could have been submitted on the spot, and I gave an ezine suggestion right there. But the most amazing part was the pride on their faces. They’d pushed themselves, at my request, and created something that wouldn’t have existed if I weren’t there to guide them through it. Wow. That’s a heady feeling.

Harnessing chaos can be intoxicating. I’m still riding the high. I’m starting to realize that I may have affected more change than I originally thought, simply by decide to share my work. Between the books and Killer Year, I shattered the chrysalis. I’ve become a butterfly, and I’ve truly stretched my wings. I seriously doubt that there’s going to be a hurricane as a result, but maybe a stiff breeze will come of it one of these days.

My question for you — have you ever taught? Do you think writers should be writers and teachers should be teachers? We all know how a bad teacher can derail you, that forcing a student to bend to your will is never a good idea. One of the things I repeated a hundred times over the weekend was "You make the rules." Do you think that the modern MFA programs and writers workshops are allowing writers to truly stretch their wings?

Wine of the Week: Barefoot Cabernet Sauvignon, courtesy of my host for the Tennessee Mountain Writers weekend, Sue Orr. Thanks so much for everything, Sue!



KILLER YEAR: Stories to Die For, goes on sale Tuesday the 22nd of January. This unique anthology is edited by Lee Child, with original stories by all thirteen Killer Year members, original stories by Allison Brennan, Ken Bruen and Duane Swierczynski, an essay from MJ Rose, introductions to all the stories by each member’s ITW mentor, and a fascinating coda by Laura Lippman. This collection is sure to please. It’s one of a kind. Come by Killer Year to read the reviews and pre-order yours today.

15 thoughts on “Chaos Theory

  1. cj lyons

    Okay, first of all, this is spooky! I have that exact same print over my desk–it’s moved from house to house for the last decade with me, one of my few possessions that always has a place no matter where I live.

    And, as you know, I love teaching! For exactly all the reasons you discussed. I find it energizing and I always learn from my students.

    The one thing I try to leave them with is my own motto: No Rules, Just Write!

    Can’t wait to see Killer Year on the shelves!!

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Great post, JT, but first

    !!!!!!!!YAY, KEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    The 2008 Edgar® Award Nominees are…

    Mystery Writers of America is proud to announce, as we celebrate the 199th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, its Nominees for the 2008 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television and film published or produced in 2007. The Edgar® Awards will be presented to the winners at our 62nd Gala Banquet, May 1, 2008 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York City.


    Christine Falls by Benjamin Black (Henry Holt and Company)Priest by Ken Bruen (St. Martin’s Minotaur)The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins)Soul Patch by Reed Farrel Coleman (Bleak House Books)Down River by John Hart (St. Martin’s Minotaur)


    Missing Witness by Gordon Campbell (HarperCollins – William Morrow)In the Woods by Tana French (Penguin Group – Viking)Snitch Jacket by Christopher Goffard (The Rookery Press)Head Games by Craig McDonald (Bleak House Books)Pyres by Derek Nikitas (St. Martin’s Minotaur)


    Queenpin by Megan Abbott (Simon & Schuster)Blood of Paradise by David Corbett (Random House – Mortalis)Cruel Poetry by Vicki Hendricks (Serpent’s Tail)Robbie’s Wife by Russell Hill (Hard Case Crime)Who is Conrad Hirst? by Kevin Wignall (Simon & Schuster)


    The Birthday Party by Stanley Alpert (Penguin Group – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedyby Vincent Bugliosi (W.W. Norton and CompanyChasing Justice: My Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn’t Commit by Kerry Max Cook (HarperCollins – William Morrow)Relentless Pursuit: A True Story of Family, Murder, and the Prosecutor Who Wouldn’t Quit by Kevin Flynn (Penguin Group – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)Sacco & Vanzetti: The Men, The Murders and the Judgment of Mankind by Bruce Watson (Penguin Group – Viking)


    The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction by Patrick Anderson (Random House)A Counter-History of Crime Fiction: Supernatural, Gothic, Sensational by Maurizio Ascari (Palgrave Macmillan)Deviance in Contemporary Crime Fiction by Christiana Gregoriou (Palgrave Macmillan)Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley (The Penguin Press)Chester Gould: A Daughter’s Biography of the Creator of Dick Tracyby Jean Gould O’Connell (McFarland & Company)


    “The Catch” – Still Waters by Mark Ammons (Level Best Books)”Blue Note” – Chicago Blues by Stuart M. Kaminsky (Bleak House Books)”Hardly Knew Her” – Dead Man’s Hand by Laura Lippman (Harcourt Trade Publishers)”The Golden Gopher” – Los Angeles Noir by Susan Straight (Akashic Books”Uncle” – A Hell of a Woman” by Daniel Woodrell (Busted Flush Press)


    The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)Shadows on Society Hill by Evelyn Coleman (American Girl Publications)Deep and Dark and Dangerous by Mary Downing Hahn (Clarion Books)The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh (Hyperion Books for Young Readers)Sammy Keyes and the Wild Things by Wendelin Van Draanen (Random House Children’s Books – Alfred A. Knopf)


    Rat Life by Tedd Arnold (Penguin – Dial Books for Young Readers)Diamonds in the Shadow by Caroline B. Cooney (Random House Children’s Books – Delacorte Press)Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin (Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing – Atheneum Books for Young Readers)Blood Brothers by S.A. Harazin (Random House Children’s Books – Delacorte Press)Fragments by Jeffry W. Johnston (Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing – Simon Pulse)


    If/Then by David Foley (International Mystery Writers’ Festival)Panic by Joseph Goodrich (International Mystery Writers’ Festival)Books by Stuart M. Kaminsky (International Mystery Writers’ Festival)


    “It’s Alive” – Dexter, Teleplay by Daniel Cerone (Showtime)”Yahrzeit” – Waking the Dead, Teleplay by Declan Croghan & Barbara Machin (BBC America)”Pie-Lette” – Pushing Daisies, Teleplay by Bryan Fuller (ABC/Warner Bros Television”Senseless” – Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Teleplay by Julie Martin & Siobhan Byrne O’Connor (Wolf Films/NBC Universal)”Pilot” – Burn Notice, Teleplay by Matt Nix (USA Network/Fox Television Studios)


    Eastern Promises, Screenplay by Steven Knight (Focus Features)The Lookout, Screenplay by Scott Frank (Miramax)Michael Clayton, Screenplay by Tony Gilroy (Warner Bros. Pictures)No Country for Old Men, Screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy (Miramax)Zodiac, Screenplay by James Vanderbilt, based on the book by Robert Graysmith(Warner Bros. Pictures)


    “The Catch” – Still Waters by Mark Ammons (Level Best Books)


    Bill Pronzini


    Center for the Book in the Library of CongressKate’s Mystery Books (Kate Mattes, owner)


    In Cold Pursuit by Sarah Andrews (St. Martin’s Minotaur)Wild Indigo by Sandi Ault (Penguin Group – Berkley Prime Crime)Inferno by Karen Harper (Harlequin – MIRA Books)The First Stone by Judith Kelman (Penguin Group – Berkley Prime Crime)Deadman’s Switch by Barbara Seranella (St. Martin’s Minotaur)

  3. pari noskin taichert

    Hip Hip Hooray for Ken!!!!!!!

    Yes, J.T., I think writers should teach if they’re compassionate. That’s a big IF.

    To me, it’s a high to see someone “get it,” to see that person blossom and sense internal creativity.

    The IF comes in for me when you get writers (or any teachers) who’ve forgotten how difficult it can be to get those words on paper, who don’t remember their own struggles.

    The other part of that IF is that good writers become fierce editors of their own works, major critics. IF they translate that into their teaching and don’t tone it down, they can destroy a budding writer faster than salt on a slug.

  4. billie

    Great post, JT.

    I’ve read a number of articles about books being “workshopped to death” in MFA programs and other writing workshops, and I’ve read some of the books that came out of those environments that made me nod in agreement, so i do think teachers can push too hard to get a writer to conform to some ideal standard.

    It’s a fine line though b/c I’ve also read books that could have been so much stronger with a good editor.

    I’m not really a teacher, although I do offer two writing “workshops” a few times/year that focus on brainstorming new material and unsticking stuck places in existing material.

    I feel like that’s my strength, which arises out of my work as a therapist and writer – helping with blocks and building confidence, as well as finding the gems and helping writers build on those.

    Even then I can’t claim the credit, as I utilize the sandtrays and the horses in the work.

    I love your “wheel of plot” exercise. what a great idea. I may make my own today and play around with it.

    I also love the chaos character. I just looked around the garret and realized I have black and white photos of cemeteries and ravens. (not counting the bulletin board collage)

    Maybe I need to re-read Poe. 🙂

  5. toni mcgee causey

    Great post, JT. I think some MFA programs do force their writers into conformity, but some don’t, so it’s important for an applicant to any program to look at the graduates’ output to see if there are unique voices coming out of the program, or are they all writing in the same genre and style.

    Some writers make excellent teachers, so I can’t imagine there’d be any black and white rules about it. A compassionate teacher is important, as someone said above, and someone who’s comfortable with their own students making different choices, choosing different voices than what the teacher might have chosen is critical.

    Congrats to Ken!!!

  6. Tammy Cravit

    Personally, I tend to look with suspicion upon writing teachers who don’t themselves write. On the other hand, some people can be brilliant writers but just not have the skill to teach, and I’m sure there are some teachers who can guide other writers to greatness without themselves producing written work. (This last group would be rather like the 5-times divorced marriage therapist — lousy at her own life, but a great help to others.)

    To me, a teacher is a guide — someone who can give her students the gentle (or otherwise) nudges they need to excel, and then get out of their way and let them do it. That’s the kind of teacher I tend to look for.

    Congrats to Ken!

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Now that I’ve calmed down about Ken (am also thrilled to see Matt Nix and Scott Frank on the list for best teleplay and best screenplay) I have to thank you for posting about chaos. Considering where I am in the new book, I needed to hear all that desperately.

    I’ve taught – in the LA Juvenile Court System, and also I’ve been a dance teacher. A good teacher is a saint, which I am definitely not, but I love being able to translate what I do into images that click for a student – either mentally or physically. I’m a better person when I’m teaching, and teaching makes me a better dancer and a better writer.

    I have been blown away by how many people have asked me to teach this upcoming year – not just workshops, but a permanent university course (not possible at the moment, but very flattering). It’s giving back. I’m for it.

    And practically, I can see how teaching can supplement a novelist’s income.

    Great subject.

  8. JT Ellison

    Sorry, guys, as usual, I’ve been out on my Friday morning.

    First, major congratulations to Ken, AND to my dear friend Derek Nikitas, who got a nod for best first. Derek fits into this post today, being an active writing professor, and a brilliant writer to boot, as is evidenced by his nomination.

    So big congrats to my boys, and to all the nominees. I have a new appreciation for the Edgars this year, and have never been so impressed.

  9. JT Ellison

    Remind me not to have a post on the next Edgar announcement day. I’ve been so twitter pated with excitement for everyone I haven’t paid much attention to the blog. I promise to do better next week.

  10. john

    I had a workshop class in college which didn’t help me at all, because we were supposed to write a 20 page short story by the end of the semester, but each week when we met we were critiquing only a page or two of an unfinished work. It would have been more helpful to write the whole story first, then critique. The advice given ended up being useless because my story changed and no one really was specific with their criticisms. So, in my experience, writing classes haven’t been that helpful. But that’s just my experience. I can’t speak for writing classes as a whole, and mine wasn’t an MFA program either.

    Also, that character you posted is not the character for chaos. It is part of it. Chaos actually is made up of two characters, and the picture you posted is only half of one of those characters. I don’t know if it will encode correctly, but this: 浑沌 is how chaos is written in Chinese.

    The I Ching, which translates as The Book of Changes, is a very old guide used for divination, for fortune telling. You make it sound mystical, but those who actually used the I Ching did not believe what they were divining was unpredictable. They believed that order naturally existed and the I Ching helped them interpret it. The whole idea of Yin and Yang and the Tao is about the order of nature, the natural way of things, not chaos.

  11. Dana King

    I have been a teacher, not not for writing. (I was a musician in a previous life.) I think there’s no set answer. Some writers are great teachers; some, frankly, stink. It might be because they lack the skill to teach, or the patience, or the interest. It might also be that a truly good teacher wants his students to exceed the teacher’s accomplishments, and a great teacher finds the skills and tendencies that work best for each student, to help to guide that student to her greatest accomplishments.

    The best teacher I’ve ever known played Principal Trumpet in the Boston Symphony. He told me once that no one can teach you anything. You learn everything yourself, basically through trail and error. A teacher’s job is to find the best way for each individual student to obtain a successful trial with the fewest errors, and to encourage when walls are inevitably hit.

    So basically, I think writers SHOULD teach, but only if they have the skills and inclination to look only to the students’ benefit; the writer’s ego of the teacher must come after the students’ best interests.

    Great post, and congrats to Ken.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *