Why we need broken things: lowering the risk of creation

Teapot with new wire handle on a round beige teapot with a cracked lid.
Broken things can be an invitation. Image ©Laurel Decher, 2016.

Accepting imperfection is part of what makes us human. I’ve watched this video about the beauty of mistakes about five times already. I first saw it in a great Coursera course about creativity. Neil Gaiman’s commencement address says something similar: make mistakes and make good art.

Moving from one country to another with my family, I’ve thought a lot about the broken things. There’s this desire to take the “best” things with you. New markers, clean erasers, favorite books, jeans with whole pockets and shirts with all their buttons need apply.

In a nutshell, this doesn’t work. Junk is an inescapable part of civilization. First of all, there’s that odd phenomenon that happens with every move. The things you know you left behind came with you and a few things you knew you wanted can’t be traced. But even if you don’t move, your existing, fully-functional belongings will be happy to wear out, develop holes, break, or shrink.

Presto! Fresh junk.

For example, we have a chronic teapot problem. The tile floor and the tea lite stove conspire. Yes, empty tea pots crack under the heat of a single candle. We’ve proved it repeatedly.

At the Second Hand Kaufhaus (Kaufhaus=Department Store), I bought a replacement teapot for 20 cents. It was the “right” kind for us because it was designed to have the handle on top rather than on one side of the teapot. Only it didn’t have the handle.

Small triumphs give us courage and self-esteem. We bought molding and copper wire and paper covered wire and my youngest and I made this handle. I sawed my finger a very little bit with the dull saw, but my youngest and I were very pleased with ourselves. I wrapped it and put it on the shelf as a Christmas present for my husband.

Unfortunately, the present fell to the floor before making it under the tree. When my husband opened it, the lid had broken neatly in half.

But then came a surprising reversal: He spent Christmas afternoon with Patex glue, bonding with his “new” teapot.

(Epidemiology caveat: Not sure it’s healthy to drink tea made in a glued pot. I didn’t search PubMed to find out.)

Do we need a certain number of broken things? After this experience, I wondered if a small amount of brokenness and disorganization in our lives is an invitation to participate.

It’s a kind of redemption. When we imperfectly repair a teapot, we invest ourselves in it. There’s a little glow every time we use it that says, “I saved that.”

“Craftmanship of risk” is a concept from David Pye and mentioned in the beauty of mistakes video above. When we make something new, we don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s an element of risk: maybe it won’t work. Maybe it’s all for nothing.

A broken thing is an invitation to create. It invites us to take a risk. If you have a brand new house with newly painted, perfect walls, you might have to overcome inner resistance to mar the perfection with a hole to hang up a picture. A broken thing or an imperfect thing is closer to our level.

“People are beginning to believe you cannot make even toothpicks without ten thousand pounds of capital. We forget the prodigies one man and a kit of tools can do if he likes the work enough.”

–From Barb Siddiqui’s review of David Pye’s THE NATURE AND ART OF WORKMANSHIP published in 1968.

If we like the work enough, if we find joy in it, even with its imperfections, we can make marvelous things. Broken things are a way to practice.

There’s another bonus to broken things: If we’re willing to fix them, that usually means someone wants them. That’s a built-in audience.

What’s in a reversal? Exploring Leigh Bardugo’s RUIN AND RISING.

Gasses bubbling the water at the lakeshore. Geothermal activity at Maria Laach caldera in Germany.
What bubbles to the surface? Geothermal activity at Maria Laach caldera in Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

Just finished reading Leigh Bardugo’s RUIN AND RISING, the 3rd book of her Grisha trilogy. If you haven’t read it, go read. (Note: This is a YA, not a middle grade title.)

SPOILER ALERT.

Last night, I stopped reading at the end of Chapter 8. Earlier in the chapter, things are looking up for Alina. She takes definite steps to be less isolated from her friends. The reader thinks things are looking up. But after this scene of light and laughter, the friends leave, and there’s one little paragraph:

Later, I could never be sure if I’d done it deliberately, or if it was an accident, my bruised heart plucking at that invisible tether. Maybe I was just too tired to resist his pull. I found myself in a blurry room, staring at the Darkling.”

For whatever reason, Alina has decided to reach out to the antagonist, the Darkling, through the tie that binds them to each other.

This moment in the story felt so real because we all know what it’s like to do something stupid when we just should have gone to sleep. After reading this story moment, I couldn’t sleep either because I knew this decision would ruin her. My reader brain was busy trying to rescue her from this choice.

I almost didn’t pick up the book again the next day. But I was on a train to Cologne and it was on my e-reader. So I did. When the scene didn’t turn out the way I expected, I was so relieved.

So, how did Leigh Bardugo do that?

How did she make the reader SURE that something dreadful was going to happen, without a doubt, and then REVERSE, without losing credibility?

This morning, I finished RUIN AND RISING before I finished traveling, so I had time to ponder.

Megan Whalen Turner’s ATTOLIA series and Dorothy Dunnett’s LYMOND CHRONICLES also have this trick of pivoting the whole story world on a character’s decision or a line of dialogue or an unexpected action.

Middle grade authors, Sage Blackwood and Angie Sage, also pull off this trick.

I really, really want the recipe.

Reversal ingredient list:

  • Reader expectations about the main character’s choices. Which ones look good from a reader perspective?
  • Consequences bubble up naturally early in the story. The reader experiences dread at the moment of choice rather than information overload.
  • Tension: The chapter that follows this passage has a feeling of I-should-not-be-here-but-I’m-too-tired that creates forboding.

Mix in reader expectations to form a smooth batter. Let consequences ferment. Set story aside to rise. Fold in a challenging choice and bake in a hot oven until done.

And then there’s Author Brutality, a.k.a. making things worse.

In his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL workshops, superagent Donald Maass asks:

“What’s the worst thing that could happen to your main character?”

“It just happened.”

Collective groans and sounds of grief from writers killing off their main characters.

“Now–what happens next?”

Because whatever happens next HAS to be a reversal. The main character has gone as far as possible in the original direction.

Any thoughts about more essential ingredients? Do you like stories with reversals? If you feel like sharing in the comments, I’d love to know your favorite examples.