The Meaning in the Mess

Every large writing project I’ve written has gone through at least one messy chrysalis phase. Rewriting has commenced, entropy’s doing its gleeful dance, and everything I wrote has been changed up so much that it’s dissolving into utter chaos. When I’m in that primordial soup, I can’t see how the overflowing ugly masses of goop will ever turn into something cohesive again. All I know is: big ugly mess.

Monarch hanging upside-down from a twig

Image by Christina, Creative Commons License.

Years ago, this jumbly phase of utter project chaos always defeated me: when I’d torn text into bits+ deleted huge swathes + wrote + rewrote + arranged + rearranged until finally “AGGGGH! I just can’t!” Once, this was generally when I gave up and put the whole project forever aside. Surely if my work looked this bad now, well, then it was truly bad. Stuff that was actually good started out pretty good and only got better when you edited. Right? This piece had started out okay and was getting worse + worse. So the piece was hopeless, and probably my writing aspirations were hopeless, too. I tossed it away and gave into the chaos.

As a busy mom, I look around me every day after I drop my kids off at school, and I see chaos of another kind: the chores that aren’t yet done, the household projects still on the long list, that form I forgot to fill out for my oldest kid. Parenting moments with my kids when I fell short of my ideals flit through my mind too. Do I make the most of my time with them? Do I show up the way I want to show up for them? As a writer, I think bigger-picture about my creative dreams and wonder, am I showing up for them? Is this messy draft what I have to show for myself?

It all weighs on me sometimes, feels like too much and tempts me to rearrange my time completely just to focus on making things less chaotic. I try to steward my time + energy wisely, with thoughtfulness. But I could toss away my day and completely reprioritize my plans based on this overwhemlingly intense flash of panicky unwillingness to tolerate the mess I see, instead. The pull of letting messes dictate my time is alluring. Can I tolerate this mess and spend my time on other things?

But it’s not really about tolerating the mess itself, whether I’m talking about the mess in my kitchen sink or the mess in my current manuscript.

It’s actually about tolerating my reaction to the mess, my judgments about the mess, my petty freak-outs about the mess, and my ardent yearning to instantly control the mess. I desperately want to do whatever it takes to stop having to look at the mess. Which can mean I dive into fixing things that don’t need fixing just to attain neatness and order again. Or, worse, I can choose to avoid the mess altogether: hello, procrastination.

It took years and lot of reading about other writers’ creative processes to understand that messy phases in written work are normal. Non-linear progress and outright anti-progress during rewriting are normal. Loathing my project sometimes is normal too, and so is questioning my self-worth when I’m in the weeds.

For many of us, these dramatic ups and downs can be part of the process. For those of us who experience this, I think the key thing is to accept that messses abound and keep going anyway. First drafts are allowed to be shitty (thanks, Anne Lamott) and the process of making them less shitty can look like wading through an awful lot of… well, shit. The crap you see on the way tells you nothing about the beauty of what might appear on the other side.

Once I accepted the anxiety and drama that rewriting through chaos brings me, I found that (of course) my intense overwhelm reaction actually lessened immediately. It’s mindfulness, acceptance, being present in a loving way but still moving foward in action. I could see my stressed-out feelings happen and think fondly to myself, “Here I am, overwhelmed by the messy part of rewriting again. Okay. Keep going. This phase doesn’t last forever.”

And it has become okay. When I finally stopped making myself wrong for my range of reactions to messiness– while still not letting myself off the hook about continuing forward– it became easier to just accept my feelings and move on. Then, after awhile, a kind of joy came into rewriting for me, a pleasure I never thought was possible. It can outright be fun + freeing to playfully mess around in art like a stompy-booted kid in a puddle, and it’s so rewarding to finally sense something better arising out of hard work. Order comes around again as the cycle moves on. But it takes longer for the magical transformation to happen if I try to rush through the part where I’m stewing in the mess.

As for the chaos of ordinary life, I still have yet to find pleasure in doing the dishes and reorganizing the cluttery disaster that the front porch devolves into every day. But that’s okay. I clean and organize anyway, more than I enjoy and less than I feel I “should.” My house is clean enough, though not perfect. I can tolerate what mess there is, and I can tolerate my dislike of that mess, too.

The mess is not the meaning. It’s just there. My reaction to the mess need not be the driver of my decisions. It’s just a set of thoughts, feelings and judgments. I still get to choose.

When that chrysalis full of post-caterpillar ooze is a steeping stewy alchemical mess, the blueprint for gold is right there in the mess itself, guiding the evolving process cell by cell when it looks like nothing is happening. Shifting towards color and flight and breaking out of the cold container to head into clear skies.

Soak in the chaos and keep going and trust that shape will return anew. Somewhere inside your mess might be a glorious new thing you can find only by stumbling around in the dark a whole lot, trying to find the right words.

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