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.