The Chaos Game

We all know just how messy it is to write, how much guessing, and chance, and simple due diligence through an intractable problem will get us to where we need to go. But through all the joyful and painful mess of creation, structure somehow does get its say. Patterns do begin to emerge, and it’s good to know what to look for, and what is possible, when those larger units of meaning need to be paid attention to as our writing progresses.

Out of chaos does come order. An interesting way to think about this process is to examine the work of the English mathematician Michael Barnsley. He studied the “patterns generated by living organisms,” which he called “the global construction of fractals by means of iterated function systems.” Barnsley also called this “the chaos game.”

Here’s how it’s played, and I’m quoting from James Gleik’s book Chaos: Making a New Science: “To play the chaos game quickly, you need a computer with a graphics screen and a random number generator, but in principle a sheet of paper and a coin work just as well. You chose a starting point somewhere on the paper. It does not matter where. You invent two rules, a heads rule and a tails rule. A rule tells you how to take one point to another: ‘Move two inches to the northeast,’ or ‘Move 25 percent closer to the center.’ Now you start flipping the coin and marking points, using the heads rule when the coin comes up heads and the tails rule when it comes up tails. If you throw away the first fifty points, like a blackjack dealer burying the first few cards in a new deal, you will find the chaos game producing not a random field of dots but a shape, revealed with greater and greater sharpness as the game goes on.”

This is something you actually can try at home. The results can be pretty freaky, and remember, as Barnsley says, “if the image is complicated, the rules will be complicated.” While Barnsley’s game does depend on a formula of advance planning, the process looks remarkably like what we all go through as we write and revise, write and revise, as what seems obscure at first becomes clearer and clearer with each successive draft. Structure is what you make it, and the structures you choose (or choose to discover) become embodied by the individuality of your creative vision.

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