Making a Mess

by Jennifer Paros

“Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.”

                                                                ~ Auguste Rodin

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

A long time ago, before the purchase of my first computer, when I was still quite committed to my Smith Corona electric typewriter, I decided I wanted to write something “real” and so set to the task of writing a book. Without outlining, note taking or even bothering to “sniff around” the idea (as Roald Dahl once referred to ferreting out whether something was story- worthy or not), I set to work.  As far as I was concerned, I was to put fresh paper in the typewriter, press the keys, fill the pages, and see what happened.  I did this every day for several hours and before I knew it, I had a collection of over 500 pages.  And that’s when it finally occurred to me: I had made something and now it was time to take a look at what it was--although this realization would have served me better earlier. 

Sometimes, we make a mess. And it may even be worse than writing a problematic book.   It may be that we’ve made choices in our lives that have not worked out well, or that we’ve suffered with financial, emotional, or physical challenges.  But whether our current mess is due to bad luck –things we don’t like seeming to randomly occur – or not, we are still free agents making decisions that greatly impact our lives.  So, no matter what mess we find ourselves in, there is always a way to shift our experience and learn how to work with all of what we’re living, whether we’re hating it or loving it. 

My book experience presented a keen example of hating one’s current mess.  Upon reading it, I thought the book was like a person without bones; it had no dynamism.   Although I was not pleased with myself, or the Frankenstein I had created, I was not ready to give up.  I took out all my books on writing and began searching for help, hoping to resuscitate and salvage. There were many note cards written, diagrammatic approaches taken, and attempts at reorganization and clarification of the material.  But in the end, I put up the white flag and bowed my head.

There was a beginning, middle, and an end. But the story’s minimal action and pervasive lack of purposefulness were oppressive.  Although I was unhappy with what I’d made, once I determined I hadn’t really wanted to make that, instead of trying to fix it, I was freed to write something completely new – and from a new vantage point. 

“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.” 

                                              ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

So, I stepped away from my mess and out of the nightmare of trying to turn it into something I actually wanted, and started creating with more awareness.  Although I was quite young, I understood that those 500 pages of drek could not be for naught, that all work and learning supports and feeds into the next.  I assumed it would serve as the first step to the place I really wanted to go.  And that was okay – even good.  

Sometimes a mess is a precursor to a new, better reorganization of what we’re wanting to express.  Right before I found the version of my children’s story that was to be published, I wrote what I considered an Extreme Mess, something so confused I actually wept over its seeming hopelessness.  Unbeknownst to me, that moment was to provide a portal into a much better approach.  But first, apparently, the curtain had to fall on how I had been approaching my story in order for me to redirect my attention and find the new.  And so that mess still managed to serve as a step in the right direction. 

It is not uncommon to feel fear of being stuck with what we’ve made, trapped by what we’re currently living, but, in truth, we never are trapped.  We’re always free to create something new.  Striving to fix what isn’t working is one way of creating anew, and starting over with greater awareness, is another. Either way, using the mess as a stepping-stone transforms it and strengthens us in the process. 

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.

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