The Forces of Creativity: Chaos
by Karen L. Oberst

This is one of a series of articles about creativity. They follow the "forces of creativity" as outlined by Don Hahn in his book Dancing Corndogs in the Night: Reawakening Your Creative Spirit, though they are here applied particularly to creativity in writing. These forces are Craft, Light, Chaos, Balance, Curiosity, Composition, Simplicity, Spectacle, Surprise, Memory, Symbol and Truth.

What chaos is
The word chaos comes from the Greek. To the ancients, chaos was the first state of the universe, or the emptiness of the outer darkness. This definition is also seen in Genesis 1:2: "The earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep" (God's Word Version). This primal emptiness was the place where the creation of the universe could start. In modern times, chaos has come to mean a state of utter confusion, of either things or events, or both.

Somewhere between the ancient and modern definitions is the place you find creativity. Chaos is a useful concept in many areas. Piaget saw it as the starting point of education. Scientists are using it as a new way to describe certain forms or systems in nature and business people are learning to ride the wave of chaos into exciting new patterns of commerce.

Chaos in Education
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) believed that you must start from a state of chaos to learn. He called this disequilibrium: a state of mind reached when a child has no existing schema (useful patterns) to handle a new object or concept. To reach a state of equilibrium once more, a child must accommodate the object or concept into a new schema, thus learning about the new object or concept. He felt that without this disequilibrium, people would not feel the need to learn.

Chaos in Science
Science has turned to chaos theory to explain many complex systems, as diverse as weather, the growth of trees, and population theory. This consists to two parts.

  1. Some systems are too complex to ever describe fully, such as weather.
  2. In complex systems, although the individual events are random, taken together they form a pattern. You can see this in fractals, and the behavior of large groups of people.

Because scientists learned to look at the world in a new way, they now have new, creative ways to describe nature and systems.

Chaos in Business
On the back cover of If it Ain't Broke, Break It by Robert J. Kniegel and Louis Patler, it says, "Today in the nineties, conventional wisdom can't help you keep pace with these rapidly changing times... Today business people have to turn the old rules inside out, upside down, and backwards not only to succeed, but to survive." Using chaos in these fast moving times breeds the creativity necessary to thrive.

Chaos in Creativity
In his book Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius, Michael Michalko says, "It is impossible to think unpredictably by looking harder and longer in the same direction. When your attention is focused on a subject, a few patterns are highly activated in your brain and dominate your thinking. ... If, however, you change your focus and think about something that is not related, different, unusual patterns are activated." Chaos sometimes involves deliberately looking at something in a new way, forcing new associations to form new and different patterns.

Edward de Bono, one of the great thinkers on creativity, developed a form of chaos thinking he calls provocation. "Provocation covers a very wide spectrum. With provocation we put forward statements not to describe what is but to make things happen in our minds. At the milder end of the spectrum we have phrases like 'what if...'; 'suppose...' 'what would happen if...' ... But there is nothing in the language to cover the more extreme end of the spectrum where a provocation can be something we know to be impossible, contradictory, or logical nonsense." (Serious Creativity)

Chaos is one of the forces of creativity because it forces you to think in new ways. Because the human mind wants to find patterns in objects or happenings, it will take disparate items and find a pattern in them. By introducing random elements into a situation, new patterns, new ways of looking at a problem emerge.

If you would like to read reviews of recent books on creativity, point your browser to the: Creativity Books reviews on my Web site.

Chaos in Writing
How do you use the principles of chaos in writing? Here are several scenarios.

  1. Are you having trouble coming up with a new angle for an article? Pair your subject with a series of unrelated words, such as picking five chosen randomly from the dictionary, or having a friend give you five words.

    For instance, you are writing on the environmental movement. Here are five words from Michalko's random word list: pothole, bookends, fly, cufflinks, and belt. Potholes might make you think of the connection between the environment and roads, or more broadly between nature and man's encroachment. (That was an easy one.) Bookends might give you the idea of taking a particular incident and both starting and ending the article with it. Fly could send your mind in the direction of airplanes or the pesky insect--are pests worth saving too? Cufflinks might make you think of what holds the movement together, and belt, that concern for nature is what holds our planet together, and without protecting it, we could be more than embarrassed; we could be dead.

  2. Are you stuck in the middle of a novel? Put your characters into wild situations. Write a scene where they are stuck in a blizzard, have won a prestigious award, sleepwalking and wakes up in a strange place, on a vacation in Europe, are abducted by aliens. You can use just about any craziness to get the creative juices flowing.

    Introduce chaos by rewriting a scene from each character's point of view. You could turn things on their head by describing the story from the villain's point of view. For one of the most unsettling inversions of heroine and villain, listen to Neil Gaiman's Snow Glass Apples, which is available as a free audio from Seeing Ear Theatre. He starts with the assumption that the Queen is the sympathetic character and Snow White is full of evil and malice. You will never look at the fairy tale the same way again.

  3. Do you have writer's block? Write on something that is the opposite of the way we normally perceive it. For instance, I once read a piece that claimed that the reason we have light in a room when we flip a switch is because light bulbs suck up the darkness. Or similar to the random word exercise, associate two totally dissimilar concepts: why is a stuffed toy like a tree? Why is a traffic cone like a bird? Or write about something you would not normally think of, such as what color is Saturday? How high is up? What does sour sound like?

    Using chaos to form new patterns will lead you into new avenues of creativity in your writing and your life. As we used to say, "Try it, you'll like it!"

Copyright © 2001 by Karen L. Oberst

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