Chaos Just Wants to Be Art
May 24, 2019 § 19 Comments
By Ellen Blum Barish
“If you want to find the secrets of the universe,” wrote Nikola Tesla, “think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”
Tesla was talking about physics. But because I believe that energy, frequency, and vibration are integral to the writing process as well, doesn’t it follow that writing can help us get closer to understanding the secrets of the universe?
It may not look like it when we’re sitting in a café, laptop or notepad on the table, coffee mug in hand, and our mind lost in thought, but writing is a physical activity. Energy is harnessed from our head through our heart and into our hands and into letters placed on a keyboard or page. The tap-tapping of fingertips or scratch-scratching of lead or ink across paper is the frequency, no matter how regular or irregular the rhythm. And a mix of concentrated thought with repeated contact of fingertips to a keyboard or page can make the writer’s whole body vibrate, literally or metaphorically.
A visual will help. Take a look at this 3-minute video of salt responding to changes in energy, frequency and vibration. Salt is randomly shaken onto a flat, black metal surface and subjected to different vibrations. The salt shape-shifts into distinct, beautiful patterns. When the frequency and vibration are increased, the salt rearranges into even more intricate designs that boggle the mind and dazzle the eye.
After I saw the video, I thought, yes! Scientific proof that chaos wants to be art. If we define chaos as something that throws us out of whack, forcing us to face big questions – loss, illness, pain, accident, healing, joy or mystery – natural laws can rouse its expression. And that expression has the potential to be magnificently beautiful. Resonant. Memorable. That’s what so many of us who read, write, edit and teach personal narrative look for in an essay or memoir.
Writing shakes the salt loose inside of us. Sometimes that salt finds its way into old wounds. It activates our memory and we feel it again, which sets the art making in motion. That writers choose to go back and feel old pain – on purpose – reflects our deep curiosity (or neurosis, but I speak for myself.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about chaos and art lately as I have been writing a memoir about the aftermath of a car-and-truck collision I experienced as a young girl. I’ve been working on it for so long now that it feels like I’ve given myself an endless, writing prompt. There’s so much material to draw from, so many directions I can go. But when I return to the page, I discover some new facet of the story. Gain some new insight. Sometimes there’s even some healing. I’ve tried to stop writing it more than once. But I find myself compelled to continue, as if the chaos itself yearns to become art. To make meaning from its experience.
Like Tesla, Carl Jung also thought about chaos. But he wasn’t talking about physics when he wrote, “In all chaos, there is a cosmos. In all disorder, a secret order. ” Jung was talking about chaos as a way to encounter one’s own soul. The descent is perilous, he wrote, but it yielded great rewards. “If one opens up chaos,” wrote Jung, “magic also arises.”
We may feel as if we are using every ounce of force – our own as well as what we can grab – to shake chaos loose enough from our psyches, spirit, body and mind to transform it into words onto the screen or page. But what magic when the words land and they are just right! When the words open a window or a door and for a moment, we may feel as if we have, indeed, come to understand some small secret of the universe.
Beyond the beautifully strung together words we leave on the page, we also leave behind concrete proof that we survived. Those lines, curves, dots and squiggles in the letters and punctuation that make up our sentences are the visible marks of chaos’s imprint on us.
Ellen Blum Barish is editor and publisher of Thread and Stitch. Her essays have been published in The Chicago Tribune, Literary Mama, Tablet, Full Grown People, Brevity Blog and have aired on WBEZ/Chicago Public Radio. She teaches writing at Northwestern University and StoryStudio Chicago and privately. Ellen is author of the essay collection, Views from the Home Office Window and is completing a memoir. She blogs at EBB&FLOW.