#2 Order & Chaos

Updated: Jan 18, 2019

“No one's ever made the first jump"

- Tank, The Matrix.

I’ve been thinking a lot about order and chaos. Can you really have one without the other?

I’ve got this silver foam-lined case that I keep all my gig mics in (I work as a sound engineer) and I specifically picked out the foam in the shape of each mic and still people put them back in the wrong way. It drives me mad. Yet when I get home 90% of the time my flat is in disarray. Stray plates and cups. Shoes. Cat hair. My god, the cat hair. Dad came round unexpectedly one afternoon and felt the need to do the dishes, it was so embarrassing. I’m really messy but I also like when everything in my house has its own place, and it feels good when, every now and again, everything goes back to where it should.

I thought about all this while I was hanging cables on their hooks in the studio room, picking up socks for the washing and moving a bookcase to its new home in the hall. It was a small bookcase. In many ways my life has little order: I work freelance so money-wise I live pretty much month to month, I have no eating pattern to speak of and I sometimes get in trouble for living in the moment, but I’m not unhinged. Ever. At times I’m so un-unhinged I worry that it makes me uninteresting. Sometimes I’ll do something nuts just to shake up the routine, like I’ll ask someone really directly about a taboo subject.

How the mics are correctly placed in the case

I genuinely think that chaos is an integral component of being creative. A lot of the best things I’ve ever done have been when I’ve let go of the handlebars to see where I’d go. Scunner, the weird band I play in, are masters of this. Their songs rarely have endings. We keep playing and Paul ‘does stuff’ in the audience, making them swing like elephants and pushing spam through a badminton racquet. Iain, the guitar player, is just as unpredictable. We call him the Lunatic Engineer, though he goes by many other names such as The Hyndland Hipster and Post Punk Papa. Paul and Iain could fill an entire blog on their own. Before joining I was very ‘let’s play this for eight then that for another eight’ at band rehearsals. Everything was very figured out beforehand. Now I just play and see what happens. I have embraced the madness.

The secret is the framework.

Yes, even cabarock rapscallions need one. There’s a style of painting in Japan that uses black water paint and a very thin paper stretched over a frame where the artist can’t stop their brush once they start or the paper rips. Improvise or die. I read about this in the sleeve notes of A Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis (notes written by Bill Evans), which compared this to jazz. Whereas the painting cannot occur without its wooden frame, even the wild improvisational nature of jazz clings to essential rules of time signature and chord standards. I suppose that’s why, as yet, I’ve stayed on the rails: I have a framework that I go back to when it gets too much.

I think writing can be compared to audio engineering in that everyone learns the rules at the beginning, but once they get to the job a lot of time is spent bending those rules and even knowing when to throw them out altogether. I recently took some short creative writing courses at Glasgow Uni and I was very surprised to see that most of my classmates didn’t use traditional grammar or punctuation, and most of the time inverted commas for speech weren’t used at all. When I got my head around that I realised that the hard and fast rules we all learned in English at school were elastic and could be played with, like Morpheus explaining the physics of The Matrix to Neo before jumping onto another building a hundred feet away.

Not Miles Davis

That gave me a lot of freedom to try things, some which worked, others that didn’t. I went back to using inverted commas but my approach had changed for good. Much like in Scunner, I’d embraced the chaos and I let it into my writing. Sure, I have the framework in place to keeps the plot moving, but there’s a real joy in giving it a life of its own and seeing what happens on the page. There’s times I’ll write a sentence that completely changes the direction of what’s happening and I’ll think “jeez, where did that come from?” I’ll go with it and then, at the end of the piece I’ll look back. I used to really worry about each word being the right one, each sentence in its right place.

I’d like to try writing a piece that was complete chaos with no frame, but there’s a good chance it would end up being an incoherent mess. Oh how we all laughed at Jazz Club on The Fast Show where men in sharp suits and spats blew their noses down trumpets and hit cement mixers with dead fish. But I will try. Maybe there’ll be a diamond in the rough that’ll inspire a new idea for a story or character, and I’d be happy with just that.

(I've recently written a short story called 'Night Bus' with this in mind, which can be found here)

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Reading: 'La Belle Sauvage', Philip Pullman. Listening to: Ladyhawke. Watching: 'Live & Let Die'

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© 2019 David McMahon.