Being an artist—a creationist—finding and expressing beauty and meaning in new and established forms and mediums—requires developing an attitude or state of mind that’s probably measurable on an electroencephalograph. As a creative writer, I “groom chaos.” Chaos is the ground of our creative being, but in our orderly, scheduled lives, we forget that every new order is built on what was once chaos and that, if we want to create the new and beautiful, then we need to get back in touch with chaos.
Edge of Vastness (Cannon Beach)
In this clock-driven, technological, rational world of calendars, business meetings, deadlines, spreadsheets, square rooms and city sectors, desks, books, computers, buttons and keys, digital readouts, folders inside folders inside folders, ad finitum, ad nauseum, an artist or writer may find her mind so blocked and squared and programmed and ultimately tethered to the human system (rather than to the human problem) that she can hardly find space, juice, stimulation, or support to create a piece that’s wild, new, exciting, and interesting—that pushes the personal and cultural boundaries and stands at least a short test of time under critical scrutiny.
Grooming chaos involves a few very important ingredients:
Time and Space: One must make time and space for being creative, for writing, painting, taking artistic photos, etc.—a time and place to get wild, to explore, to excuse oneself from the world’s expectations as we perceive them. Without time and space (studio, forest, Photoshop) there’s little room for creativity. An artist inevitably creates nothing but frustration and may be forced to sell her soul to the “program” in the face of beckoning truth and beauty.
Mental Space: One must be able to clear the mind of daily, practical, mental activity, of deadlines, worries, and old habits—in other words, make room not only in time and space but also between the ears. Ironically, some “postmodern” artists have made art using the stuff of daily life in order to make the point that even artists in this day and age can’t escape their own busy thoughts but instead find in them the compost for new statements about what it is to be human. For example, there are several artists today who use trash to create meaning, which harks back to Andy Warhol’s use of advertising in his pop art or Picasso’s use of a broken bicycle’s handlebars and seat to sculpture a bull. But even here, one needs a moment’s mental space to see the new in the old or daily. There needs to be enough mental space for this germination to occur.
Warhol’s Campbell’s Soups
Picasso’s Bicycle Bull
Belief in Self: We must believe we are capable of creating new images, visions, ideas, connections, and juxtapositions. Many of us find ourselves stuck in an attitude about ourselves that art is bourgeois or that art is too far outside the mainstream to be worthwhile—that it doesn’t make us much money and is therefore worthless. Or that it’s self-indulgent. Or that we as individuals are lacking talent, or a parent, teacher, or friend said, “You have a tin ear,” “You lack imagination,” You can’t write because you’re a terrible speller,” “You’re color blind.” We have to move past these stereotypes, labels, and shallow, mean, vindictive judgments in order to find that in fact we do have interests, talents, and skills that we haven’t explored or developed because of them.
Getting in Touch with the Mind: We need to get in touch with how the mind works (once we’ve created the time and space, cleared the mind, and broken through the negative thoughts)—how the mind responds to what it sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels, both within the cranium and without (is there really a difference?). This is why I like to refer to Richard Hugo’s “triggering town” in order to promote the idea that we always start from something. There’s always a triggering subject or image in art making. This could be a person, a dialogue, a place, an event, an action, an image, a dream, a feeling, or someone else’s work. Richard Hugo drove to a small town, took a room in an old hotel, went out to the local bar, met strangers, had interesting experiences and conversations, then went back to his room and wrote his poems, many of which are based on the places and people he experienced on his forays. The mind associates and, if the mind associates freely, associates by way of what I call “sideways” leaps or connections (see Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry). In other words, the mind tends to get in the habit of associating in a linear, forward, productive, time-driven, cause-and-effect way and needs to learn to leap sideways to associate freely in creative ways. Picasso’s bicycle bull provides a succinct example.
In literature there are many precedents: James Joyce and others in his milieu, such as Djuna Barnes, developed and practiced “stream of consciousness,” Rimbaud explored “derangement of the senses,” and Jack Kerouac developed and promoted “automatic writing.” In other words, these artists sought chaotic states of mind in order to discover and express new literary materials and forms.
When I groom chaos, I usually give myself permission to drink a little beer or wine, doodle on my fiddle, stare out the window at the birds playing, the leaves fluttering and clouds streaming by, or the moon rising out of the forest, and let my thoughts reel out as they may. Sometimes my thoughts strike me as interesting or as having value or use, so I make notes on my voice recorder or on a piece of paper. Then, when an idea, line, thought, or image intrigues me, I work up a piece in my notebook, or on my computer, starting with that “triggering town” to build a poem, essay, or blog post. I have an enormous backlog of lines, titles, images, paragraphs, and poem or essay drafts—way more that I can keep up with, which, let’s face it, is much better than not having enough and scrounging around for ideas as if we aren’t already full of such riches. I call this backlog “compost.” I generate so much compost that the plants of my mind grow wild—twining, billowing, and blooming out of control. I begin to see patterns that reflect who I am and what I really feel deep within.
And it isn’t until I’ve come back to a piece several times that I allow the stern judge to enter the courtroom of my mind. Yet, interestingly, even the great, harsh, dismissive judge seems to have a creative knack, simply because the judge can’t altogether throw out an initial creative impulse that came so naturally, freely, powerfully, and insistently.