I don’t know what to write.
This story, if it is a story—I don’t really know yet—is currently a caterpillar. A caterpillar made out of words that might also be a story. Not, as I may elaborate on later, in the same sense that a caterpillar might be a butterfly. More in the same sense that caterpillar might be dinner for a bird. Now, you may be under the impression that stories can’t be caterpillars and writers should know what they’re writing. Don’t worry, it’s okay to be wrong.
There are stories of pilots looking down on the green ocean of the Amazon and seeing flashes of azure brilliance miles below. Those flashes were blue morpho butterfly wings. The thing about butterfly wings is they don’t reflect light, like pigments, they amplify it; photons corresponding to certain perfect wavelengths are layered over and over through scales until they shine more brilliantly than the portion of the sun’s light they once were. Perfection, for butterflies, is an emergent property.
Writing moves along a similar path. Perfectly following the rules of language is no more guaranteed to create perfection in a sentence—where perfection is saying something perfectly—than throwing a bowl of alphabet soup at a wall. In fact, studying the latter is likely to pay off better than the former. Don’t believe me? Find a great writer and ask what inspired them. If you can find one who says, “The Chicago Manual of Style!” I will buy you a can of soup. Any kind of soup you want.
The thousands of little scales of their wings are just ordinary blue on their own. Unless the scales line up at just the right distance, at exactly the right angle, they’re just the same tired blue as they would be alone, or, if the angles are exactly wrong, the light turns back upon itself and swallows the color entirely. Only when everything aligns perfectly do they reach their iridescent sapphire potential. It’s called interference, destructive and constructive, respectively: The waves of light either filling their troughs sharing their crests. The same pieces, rearranged, can dazzle or drain. Like words. Or heavy-handed metaphors.
What I mean is that rules fence off the rest of a wider world. If we corral our little caterpillar stories in places the birds can’t get at them, eventually they starve to death. The whole difference between caterpillars and butterflies is that they operate under different sets of rules. One day a caterpillar sits (flops) down and says (metaphorically), Hey I do not want to follow these stupid caterpillar rules anymore! And then it becomes a butterfly! No: Then it becomes a chrysalis, which is to say, even less interesting than a caterpillar while all the little caterpillar parts move around to make a butterfly. A lifetime of eating leads up to a final risk. No going back, no ability to defend the status quo, just metamorphosis. All or nothing. A caterpillar’s just got to hope it gets to be a butterfly before it gets to be lunch.
Now, maybe you think your bird-proof caterpillar cage is big enough that you can eat all you want and turn into a beautiful risk-free butterfly whenever you feel like. And maybe you can, I’m just making this up as I go along, but how is being a captive butterfly any better than being caterpillar?
That’s why we’re not going back to revisit this maybe-story as it grows. We’re just going to let it consume and destroy and grow until it becomes something—or it dies a horrible death and I have to think of something else to write. If it wants to be an essay instead of a story and it has to devour the crops of an entire starving village in Africa to feed itself, well, that’s the price of beauty, folks.
You know what else is beautiful? Blank paper is beautiful. It’s all about drawing the line, any line. The world of the mind is not a place where lines can just be lines. In the mind, lines are just shapes, maybe letters, that haven’t been finished yet, and shapes are just pieces of objects, maybe words, and objects, well, objects are just the lonely bits of scenes. See how it flows together? Like scales in a butterfly wing.
Take the statement, “I don’t know what to write.”
It has gotten me this far despite being a fundamentally flawed sentence: It could be specific to this instance, it could be applied to writing in general, it could mean I don’t know what to say, or it could mean I don’t know how to say it. What it does mean, is all of the above. By which I mean all of the preceding sentences in this paragraph, and, also, maybe, some of the stuff above that, too. Certainly, whatever follows, be it beautiful. . . or less so.
People always turn out to be less beautiful than they could have been, because infinite potential is a given, and infinite yield is contraindicated by the laws of physics. You probably think I’m wrong. Well, I think you’re probably right.
We like to think we’re all turning into butterflies, and why shouldn’t we? Have you ever seen a butterfly collection? When butterflies die we place them under glass. When people die, we place them underground, or burn them, or throw them into the ocean; anything not to be reminded that, when we’re done, anything that was ever beautiful about us is gone. Have you ever seen a caterpillar collection? Me neither. When you find a dead caterpillar you just do your bloody best to ignore it.
Naturally, we tell each other all the good parts have gone on, our caterpillar friends have become invisible butterflies. We don’t know though. All we know is that those invisible butterflies definitely don’t have any mass or energy, which seems a bit suspect when you think about it. That’s why we have words and paint, music, philosophy, and science, etc. ad infitum. . .
There are words older than language: The snarl of someone who has surrendered completely to his rage, the shout of the man facing a death he knows he cannot escape, the cry of the mother who cannot save her children, and the shriek of fear so intense it has frozen muscle and mind. Older than time, deeper than thought, in the harmony of untold millions of despairing voices, you’ll hear what all of them are calling out: A denial of their mortality.
We start out as blank pages that could be filled with anything, and mostly we choose to fill them with nothing—rules for what we could be if we wanted. We start out as things that might be butterflies, so we devour everything beautiful in the belief that if we devour enough then maybe, maybe, we might become something beautiful. And then we die, and they burn us. Knowledge is not finite, though, as long as you ignore the rules. It can be devoured forever and never diminished—the best of us, the bits of potential we think we have realized, we can hand those down to the caterpillars that follow us, and maybe they can eat enough to become butterflies. We become butterfly-stories, butterfly-paintings, and butterfly-constitutions.
Suddenly, we’re not ugly little things that will never be pinned to walls. We’re ugly little pieces of the wings of a greater butterfly, each of us trying to position ourselves so that the layer above us can make us shine a little brighter. We don’t need to be anything but ordinary everyday blue to be part of something breathtaking. We aren’t essays or stories, we’re just words, maybe sentences, trying to find the right order to live up that fuller potential. And even if our sentence ends in death, our story goes shining on.
Also, I might owe a couple of you soup.