Thoughts On Chaos

song in my head — “It’s A Job” by Wolfie’s Just Fine

In this life, chaos is unavoidable. We all know it. We sense it. We see it. Chaos, suffering, the unexpected… these things surround us all the time. It’s in many ways, the human condition. So this being the case—that no amount of human planning or programming or control can do away entirely with the unexpected, with chaos, then the only thing that we can do to find harmony or peace is to reframe the way in which we look at chaos. Because like almost everything else, there are two sides to the chaotic coin, a lightness to the dark.

Our most human of intuitions is to look for patterns, to look for a cause and effect. With the micro chaos, sometimes this is easy. We ran over a nail; therefore we have a flat tire. Mystery solved. With the big stuff, though… this can be more difficult. This healthy person I know now has cancer. They have 6 months to live, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

That phrase, “there’s nothing anyone can do about it” has evolved into a pretty prevalent axiom these days: “It is what it is.” While on its face, this is a rather cynical or dismissive way to approach everyday chaos, (and that’s usually how it’s used), it’s a saying not without its truth. It really is what it is. But recognizing “it is what it is” and being at peace with “it is what it is” are two very different things.

The word chaos is primarily used to describe a state of total confusion or disorder, something unorganized and unbridled. But there’s another definition that I think is worth pondering for our purposes. It’s often seen as Chaos with a big C, related to the idea of the creation of the universe, the creation of all things. Chaos—that place of disorder before order is introduced—is a state of things in which chance is supreme. So if there’s a CHANCE that bad stuff we “don’t deserve” will come our way, isn’t there also a chance that GOOD things we don’t deserve will come our way? And not only that, but what if every moment of chaos, every state where chance is supreme, was approached with the mindset that not only will Good possibly come from this moment, but that Good ultimately CAN come from this moment. The possibility of either is there. It’s just a matter of how you look at it.


The Points Still Count

"Without a ruler to do it against, you can’t make crooked straight." — Seneca

song in my head—”Real World” by Matchbox Twenty

We would all do better in the wilderness with a guide, someone to show us the lay of the land—where not to go, what areas are good to explore, etc. And I don't think it limits our experiences to have boundaries of a sort.

Guides don't have to be "rulers," per se, though there are aspects of life that should inspire stricter order. For the purposes of the artist, I think the best guides leave some wiggle room, some space for improvisation and exploration. I don't think a healthy aim for life (or our work) is to plan on making one perfect, impossible shot after another. That's not realistic. Instead, think of guides as goalposts in football. The kicker has a range in which to score points. It doesn't matter if the ball goes straight down the center or barely eeks in. The points still count either way.


Just Keep Writing

Just keep writing.

You won’t always be understood. You won’t always be taken seriously or correctly. Your message might fall on deaf ears. Or hostile ears. Or ears with lots of opinions.

It doesn’t matter. If you have something to say, say it. The right people will find it.

That post your wrote that only one person read—that might have been just the encouragement that person needed. That little movie you made with your friends and no budget because you just had to get it out—that might become someone’s favorite movie, or a catalyst that inspires someone else’s long-shot story.

In his book, Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, the incomparable Robert McKee says, “In a world of lies and liars, an honest work of art is always an act of social responsibility.”

If you have an honest work inside you, something within you that needs to be said, say it. There’s a reason that spark is there—in life and in art, there are no accidents. So set it off. And pretty soon, you’ll have a bonfire, a career. You’ll be writer, and no one can take that away from you.

“A writer isn’t done being a writer until they decide they’re done.
No matter what has gotten in your way: Just. Keep. Writing.”

Just keep writing.

—G (and @Massawyrm)

Ninety-Nine Voices

song in my head—”Take Lots With Alcohol” by Alkaline Trio

We are very good at focusing on the bad.

We might receive ninety-nine compliments in a day, but remember only the one negative word spoke towards us.

That book you published on Amazon? Ninety-nine 5-star reviews. So why does that lone one-star chew at your brain like a termite?

A co-worker we enjoy being around and have much in common with disagrees with us on one thing. Why do we feel the sudden urge to write them off completely?

The truth of the matter is that our brains have a negativity bias. It’s actually easier to remember bad news. So today, do your best to remember the good. Write it down if you have to. Create positive mantras for yourself that counteract the negative. Focus on your strengths and let your weaknesses be stepping stones to growth, rather than the things that trip us up.

And as you find the positive, make sure to pay it forward. Because if one voice can drown out the ninety-nine, the last the you want to be is that one.


Bad Decisions

song in my head — “Apology” by Matt Rose (feat. Dani Rae Vaughn & Texas Drew)

There’s nothing more meaningful than looking someone in the eye—someone who just made a big mistake against you or a bad decision that affected you in someway—and saying, “Hey, it’s okay. We’ll work through this together.”

The temptation for retaliation, bitterness, and anger are of course high in such situations. But most people who have made mistakes don’t need added condemnation from us. They’ll get enough of that from themselves. Better it is to lend understanding in tough moments. A willingness to forgive is an offering of freedom, not just for the one receiving it. Err always on the side of grace.


Predictable, But In A Good Way

song in my head — “Predictable” by Good Charlotte

One of the most important things I believe a storyteller can learn—especially one who wants to push conventions yet still reach a large number of people—is the subtle art of audience expectations. What does my reader or viewer expect from a story like this one?

Many factors play into audience expectations, and they vary from medium to medium. In the film world, for example, something unrelated to the actual movie, like the budget or some behind-the-scenes drama, can have a significant impact on how a viewer enters the theater (if they enter at all.) In most stories, however, regardless of medium, genre conventions and "tropes" often play a highly critical role.

One thing I find exciting to try and achieve in all my stories, no matter the genre, (and a quality I really enjoy experiencing as an audience member,) is the idea of predictability. Is this story predictable?

Now, you often only hear about something being "predictable" in a negative criticism, but I think being predictable in a good way—what some might call “inevitability”—is a worthy aim. It means you have set up your story well, and that the payoffs are clicking. It means an audience is tracking with you. It says you're playing all the right notes.

Of course, being predictable in a bad way is undesired, and usually comes when a story isn't inspiring, unique, or well-crafted. When an audience can see every moment coming from a mile away, well, that's not very satisfying.

However, an audience (especially a mainstream one) generally likes to be one tiny step ahead of you. Most people can't tolerate being in the narrative dark for too long. They want to understand the story—want it to feel familiar in some way, even if they can't articulate that need. It feels good, then, to have that flash of revelation, that moment when you see how the story has stacked the dominos, just before the storyteller topples them.

If you can hit this sweet spot—making the audience do a little work for the joy of revelation—then I believe the potential for more people to enjoy your work is higher. And what artist doesn't want that?


The Mask of Virtue

song in my head — “Yeah, Whatever” by Splender

Virtue is an interesting quality, one we strive to find in others and one we hope is present in ourselves.

After all, who doesn't want to be good?

Gillette recently released a piece of branded content that aimed to be good. Maybe you've heard of it. It's been kind of a big deal.

Predictably, it's ruffled a few feathers— the Daily Wires and Fox News’ of the world, whose opinions by now on such matters are obvious in almost any circumstance. It also, equally as expected, garnered much praise for its message, especially from feminists and feminist allies.

Nevermind in all of this that Gillette is a multinational, billion-dollar corporation still marketing pink things to woman that cost more than "man" things (a double insult, if you ask me), or that this “degrading” commentary is at its core nothing more than an advertisement designed to incite conversation in order to sell razors. What matters the most in this game of public virtue is that everyone gets to feel good about themselves.

You see, those who love the message already held those beliefs—that there's a problem with today's men. I do not disagree with this viewpoint outright; I'm simply saying that the message of the ad aligns with this worldview, and having such a view confirmed by a high-profile piece of marketing—excuse me, “short film”—feeds hubris. It feels good to be justified. Thus the positive response.

Oppositely, there are those pissed off by the piece, those who feel slighted or attacked. Again, I don’t necessarily disagree with the substance of their complaints (though I often grow weary of the condescending manner in which they are generally delivered.) But like their counterparts, the reactions of the “stereotypical conservative” are practiced and expected, especially those of the pundit class. The message doesn't align with their worldview, because they already believe that they are right and virtuous; their hubris is their brand. So any suggestion of malice in their tribe as a whole is an insult to their individual and supposed virtue, an insult requiring loud and sometimes aggressive rebuttal. (see: #NotAllMen)

And then there's Gillette itself, the leader in this virtue Olympics, who have now purchased the right to crow the loudest, while their unfair practices are swept further under the rug.

But here's the thing about virtue. Being good is tough. We seek to be good, but it takes work—inner work and self-reflection and self-awareness, things our mainstream culture has no real interest in fostering. To seek true virtue is at this point almost countercultural, which is uncomfortable for many.

Fortunately for us, as Gillette aptly shows, virtue is a quality that is easy to fake. And in today's culture, where our every public move is categorized and cataloged and judged with impunity and in perpetuity, the temptation to at least appear good has never been higher. So the self-righteousness and the opinions and the judgments and the corporate lecturing will continue, while actual, inner change seems harder and harder to find.

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” — Marcus Aurelius

A hollow and precisely-crafted message like Gillette's, then, with its corporate origins and its simplistic overview of complex humanity, can be regarded as little more than an opportunity to don our virtue, to "argue what a good man should be" when we should, as Marcus Aurelius puts it, place our focus and energy on just being better people—people understanding, compassionate, and empathetic to others, who seek to serve those around them while worrying little about the morality of a morally relative and reactionary culture.

The truth of the matter is is that these responses to such stimuli, positive or negative or somewhere in between, are not about being good. They are about the viewer and how the viewer uses the message as a mirror to signal their own, often misrepresented or misplaced virtue. Their own correctness. Being right is the ultimate trophy, after all. And such an appealing prize makes for good marketing bait. Gillette has made a connection now, you see. We've either found an ally or an adversary in a global manufacturer of toiletries. (Hooray for us.) And this was the aim all along; as with sex, polarization sells. It is better for Gillette to be hated or adored than ignored altogether.

So for my part, (as I admittedly signal my own supposed virtue), Gillette didn't really rile me in any direction. This is because I try to hold a counter perspective to that of the two polar ends doing the most shouting in the halls of public discord, an attitude which many of us keep. We see the ad for what it is, we think the message is valuable, and we understand that most of us will, more often than not, fall short in its pursuit. This is simply the reality of it, free of our opinions and judgments.

We try. We fail. We learn. We try again.

Of all the masks we wear, the Mask of Virtue may be the hardest to discard. But it's also the most damning to embrace. It puts us above others when humility should be our chief goal. It says we are incapable of being wrong when learning from our failures is the only true path to growth.

So remember, then, if you can, to keep in check such emotions, especially when they're being manipulated in the pursuit of financial gain. Our work should be in striving to be good, not in arguing about who is better.

And certainly not in faking who is best.

— G