The Spiral Staircase
an excerpt from The Integrated Writer
Order and disorder are the twin siblings of existence. They're big concepts, and for that reason they’re difficult to define precisely. Instead of defining them, we’ll visualize a few examples.
Order is ten thousand books in a library, each catalogued, labeled, and tidily displayed. In normal circumstances you’re always able to find the library, find the bookshelf, find the volume, and find the item you’re looking for inside the volume. Order is predictable. You know the address and phone number of order.
Disorder is ten thousand human beings at a sports arena. A fight breaks out among supporters of opposing teams, someone hears what sounds like a gunshot, and a crescendo of agitation leads to a stampede that causes untold casualties. Disorder is unpredictable. Addresses and phone numbers are hard or impossible to find. And if you find them, they’ll be useless.
Order is your waking up at 7:30 AM every morning, with or without an alarm. Disorder is your waking up at a different time every day; or at a time other than the one you planned for, at 3 AM or 12 noon, too soon, too late. Order obeys you, as much as you obey it. Disorder is disobedient.
Order is the conjugation of a regular verb. When you learn a foreign language, it’s a real help to know that a whole bunch of verbs will be conjugated in the absolute same way. You can plug the root of the verb onto a fixed grid of verb endings, and—presto, voilà. “Je t’aime.” Disorder is prepositions, spelling, pronunciation, regional slang, illogical grammatical rules with illogical exceptions. Disorder is an intoxicated paranoid stutterer spewing angry slang from a foreign country. Google won’t help. Order is the law, disorder is the crime.
Order is containment, which is both a plus and a minus. It’s good to contain twenty third-graders in a classroom for 45 minutes. It’s not so good to contain twenty third-graders and a rabid dog in a classroom for 45 minutes. Disorder is the absence of containment. Like everything else in life, it’s also a plus and a minus. Disorder might be the release of pent-up energies, a life-giving flow of all-encompassing unconditional love.
Wherever you look, you’ll see that order and disorder coexist. Look within: You, too, are made of order and disorder.
It's useful to call disorder improvisation, and order structure.
English has a structure you can study, analyze, understand, and internalize. To speak English fluently, however, is primarily an act of improvisation. Most of the time you don’t know beforehand what you’re about to say, how the other person is going to react, and how you’ll continue the conversation. In conversation as in everything else, some people improvise better than others, and a few people improvise brilliantly. But there isn’t anyone alive today who, in speech, doesn’t improvise altogether. To speak is to improvise.
Speech isn’t the only domain in which you improvise. Improvisation is an innate function of body and mind. Dealing with family members or coworkers, driving, shopping, and cooking all contain improvisatory aspects. Some improvisations are more disorderly than others. The improvisations of lovemaking and dreaming tend to be less controlled than the improvisations of making a salad with whatever ingredients you find in the fridge.
Every life is a combination of structure and improvisation, and a healthy life is the integration of structure and improvisation. It isn’t easy to achieve. Disorder is scary for someone who prefers order, and order is a prison for someone whose habit is disorder. Many orderly types “want to know what they’re getting into” before taking their first steps, but in most of existence it isn’t really possible to know that much in advance of things. That means that many people are blocked in life—reluctant to leave their comfort zones, and reluctant to take risks, even small risks that let disorder in. In our creative efforts, this manifests itself in the fear of the blank page, the fear of letting imagination rule, the fear of ridicule, the fear of having nothing to say, the fear of being “unmasked” as a phony or an interloper or an outsider or . . . When it comes to fear, the possibilities are immense.
For the disorderly personality, the “duty to structure” seems asphyxiating. A disorderly person loves to quip, loves to laugh, loves to make noise—and does it all ceaselessly. This makes for a writer of jokes who can’t tell an actual story, because a good story needs structure. Disorderly personalities can sometimes be extremely busy without getting anything done. Structure entails making choices: put this in, take this out; develop this, shorten that. Structure means “to stop and think.” But disorderly personalities don’t like to stop and don’t like to think, and for all their “doing” they sometimes don’t accomplish much. Structure sometimes means to look at things from a distance, and disorderly types prefer immediacy, which of course is a plus in the world of improvisation. The potential fears of the disorderly type are as numerous as those of the orderly type.
The improviser is the fool, the poet, the clown, the madman, the brat, the child, the animal in you. The structurer is the prosecutor, the architect, the engineer, the doctor, the sheriff, the bouncer, the custodian in you. We might also call one the Creator and the other, the Editor. The Creator connects to irrational, symbolic, archetypical forces. The Editor shapes the discoveries of the Creator into something material and objective—“a book,” for instance. To simplify it, we might say that the Creator deals in energy, the Editor deals in matter; the Creator releases flows of energy, the Editor shapes and contains these flows.
To achieve your goals, you pass from improvisation to structure, and from structure to improvisation, endlessly back and forth until you write the book, solve the problem, compose the opera, pay the rent, heal the hurt. It's like going up an existential spiral staircase. You start facing west, where you're improvising; up a few steps and you're now facing east, and structuring your next moves. Up and up you go.
Do we ever refer to God as The Editor? No. Never. God is the Creator. So, your climb up the stairs must start with improvisation--and its disorderly and irrational aspects.
©Pedro de Alcantara, 2015