Thoughts on Unruly Fiction

In his 2004 biography of Isaac Newton, James Gleick characterized the great scientist (and closet alchemist) this way: “He sought order but never averted his eyes from the chaos.”

A desire for order, with a recognition that chaos will disturb that order. Not only does it sound like an essential quality for any scientist, it strikes me as a description of the fictions I like best. And an aspiration for the fictions I create.

As I prepare to teach a course in “Unruly Fictions” this fall, I’ve been thinking a lot about stories that don’t neatly fit the standard (Aristotelian) mold. Generally speaking, the fiction that excites me resides on a spectrum between order and chaos, knowledge and mystery, convention and experimentation. The stories that move me live in the tension between these poles, and a story becomes, in a sense, the struggle for a glimpse of recognition (truth, understanding) in an often confusing world.

What I’m learning (again) in my preparation to teach is that what gets me jazzed is not so much where on the spectrum a story lands as it is that a story engages this spectrum at all. It can be in a plot-based, mostly recognizable story such as Alice Munro’s “Miles City Montana.” Or it can be in a wild ride through an unfamiliar landscape such as Robert Lopez’ “Your Epidermis Is Showing.”

When I advocate for writers (students, friends, myself) to reach beyond our comfort zones, I’m pushing for each of us to find the place where chaos touches our orderliness (or for some of us, where order touches our chaos). Because that’s where the writing is alive, in the zone where we’re uncomfortable, where we don’t know the answers and haven’t yet imagined the possibilities. It’s where the world we know touches the world we don’t.

Alain Robbe-Grillet maintained that “[a]ll writers believe they are realists, but each has different ideas about reality. The classicists believed that reality is classical, the romantics that it is romantic, the surrealists that it is surreal… Each speaks of the world as he sees it, but no one sees it in the same way.”

To me, the place where order and chaos collide is where the sparks fly. As Aimee Bender describes it, “the mysterious core of writing is the fire we all gather around.” Yup. That’s where I want to live – and work. However we describe the fictions that result.


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About the Author

Ron MacLean's novel HEADLONG won the 2014 Indie Book Award for Best Mystery. Ron's other books are the story collection Why the Long Face? (2008), and the novel Blue Winnetka Skies (2004). His short fiction has appeared in GQ, Greensboro Review, Prism International, Night Train, Other Voices and other quarterlies. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud part of team Grub since 2004.

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