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Rhizomes and Rain Forests: Two Approaches to a Story

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Most of us know what a rain forest is. A rhizome, not so much, so I’ll start with that.

Back in 1980, two French philosophers named Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari came up with a notion they called rhizomatic thinking, or rhizomatic learning.

A rhizome is a root system. Unlike a tree that grows from a central trunk by branching into smaller and smaller divisions, a rhizome expands laterally, equally. There’s no primary source, no hierarchy; you can enter the rhizome at any point and go from there to any and all other points through an interconnected, nonlinear network.

What does this have to do with writing?

A lot.

A rhizomatic perspective helps us find our way through forced-choice questions like:

Are you a plotter or a pants-er?  Is it better to write your story from beginning to end, or to write the core scenes first? Should you start from stakes, motive, goal, or arc-of-change?

If you think of a novel as a rhizome, you can say yes to all these options. You can enter the world of the novel wherever you like, and make your way through the network. You can leap-frog, follow side-paths, retrace your steps and begin again, move up and down and across.

In other words: You can begin in the middle of the story. With a description of the environment. With a conversation between two characters. With an image that has special meaning for your protagonist.

I’m not speaking about the reader’s experience, when he encounters the story in its final form, since most readers do prefer to follow a story from Page 1 to The End. I’m talking about your experience, as the writer, when you’re creating the story: how and when and in what order you draft the scenes, flesh out the characters, work out their traits and backgrounds and arcs.

Rhizomatic movement has its own logic, its own form of connectedness between the various points. It’s not like the “logic” we’re used to, however, which is based on a sequential, causal notion of A leads to B.  Rather, it’s more associative and intuitive, unfolding by evocation and correlation.

To explain what I mean, I’ll describe how some of the themes and motifs in my most recent novel came about.

Early in the book, the protagonist’s daughter accuses her mother of being a “Snow Queen,” beautiful and cold and remote. To an extent, that’s true, yet the protagonist realizes (later) that she’s spent years being more like Snow White than the Snow Queen, asleep rather than aloof.

Those images came to me while I was writing—that is, while I was finding my story, in an early draft.  I hadn’t been thinking about fairy tales, not consciously, yet the fairy tales must have been there in my subconsciousness—appearing, when needed, to give form to an emerging feeling about my character. And then, once I remembered the “Snow White” tale, other motifs and metaphors and insights arose that showed me where the story needed to go.

For Snow White, a bite of the apple made her fall asleep, no longer aware of her surroundings or even herself.  For Eve, on the other hand (another story in our Western lore), a bite of the apple caused her to awaken, to become aware of herself and the world in a new way.  Snow White took the apple (and bit into it) because she was innocent, trusting that it was a safe thing to do. Eve took the apple (and bit into it) because she was a rebel, daring to take a risk and do something that was not likely to be safe.

I began to follow these threads into the tapestry, or rhizome, of my story. The “contradictions” began to feel like complementary, yin-and-yang halves of what I wanted to say.  I thought about the apple, red and round, like a planet or a drop of blood. A Cezanne apple, luminous and perfectly present.  Present, like a gift—and suddenly I remembered a moment on a train in Germany, decades ago, when a little girl, perhaps three years old, offered her apple to me with perfect purity, and said: “Das ist mein apfel.”

I hadn’t thought of that moment in years, didn’t even know it was still in me, yet it found its way into my story, as a little girl offered to share her red apple with the protagonist. Here. Mine, and yours too. Not my loss and your gain, but for both of us.

That image of generosity, purity, and community became a central motif of the last half of the book that I never could have predicted.

Children, safe and in danger. The color red. A perfect globe. All of this from the image of Snow Queen, weaving its way through the story landscape and leading me on a rhizomatic path that I hadn’t mapped in advance, or even imagined.

Now for the rain forest.

To understand the rain forest, we have to “zoom out” for an aerial view that includes all the vines and plants and species that comprise an interdependent whole. In the rhizome, we see what is nearby, or next; in the rain forest, we see how the elements fit together under a common canopy.

For me, the rain forest is the overarching Aboutness of a novel.  This is a story about what happens when we can’t forgive.  Or, longer: This is a story about the cost of a woman’s refusal to forgive, and the unexpected gift of a second chance.  Or, shorter: This is a story about forgiveness.

A concise Aboutness statement is the canopy, under which the core elements (characters, motives, conflicts, and so on) can find their place. It’s the story’s raison d’etre, but is not itself a story.  After all, when we read a novel, we aren’t thinking about its theme; we’re following the characters and their relationships and the what happens of the story events. We’re experiencing a journey along the rhizome.

There’s a lot of great advice about creating that concise statement—whether you call it a premise, elevator speech, or logline—just as there are many excellent grids and templates for structuring the plot.  But I haven’t seen many practical suggestions for fostering the rhizomatic, intuitive, associative process that (I believe) is another essential element of creativity.

So here are a couple of suggestions:

First: give yourself permission.

Start with an image or theme from your story that touches you, like my Snow Queen, and let your mind wander.  It can be helpful to speak your thoughts aloud into a recording device, which can free you from whatever habits are connected with typing on a keyboard. I like to do this while my body is engaged in something simple and repetitive, like walking or weeding. Include everything that comes to you; you can delete later.

Pick an evocative item and toss it into other scenes. 

If you notice something that seems to have strong evocative power (like my red apple), try inserting it—not too often, and not obtrusively—into a couple of other scenes. How does its presence change the scene?  What new connections and echoes and possibilities emerge, just by adding this item, which is already charged with meaning?

Turn your story into a visual-spatial drawing.

Since rhizomatic thinking is more like a web than a staircase, it can be helpful to use drawings and diagrams to map the relationships.

Start with something specific, like the red apple. Write the word “red apple” (or draw one, or insert a picture of an apple) in the center of a blank page. “Apple” is just an example, of course. It can be a character, an object, a room, a gesture, a figure of speech.

Around it, place the important people, settings, and items that are related to the apple in the story.  Then draw lines to connect the apple to each of these items. Consider each line. Is it thick or thin, broken or frayed?  Does it seem to point in one direction, or in both? What do these lines tell you?

Then consider each of the items you’ve chosen—in my story, they would probably include water and the color green, for example.  Then ask yourself if each of these items is connected to any of the others, independently of the apple, without having to “pass through” it. Draw those lines too.

Continue as long as you like, using different images and motifs. The thicker the cross-connections, the denser and richer the tapestry, the more profound and multi-layered the resonance—with an important caveat.  Don’t spell it all out for the reader—no more than you would list all the notes (C-sharp, D, major fifth) while someone listens to a piece of music. Let the reader have her own experience. Let her hear the music, not the individual notes.

The idea of these exercises is to shake loose from the chain of cause-and-effect (i.e., the plot) that provides the backbone for your novel. That backbone is important—it’s what organizes the material and transforms it from a random impressionistic collection into a story. Throughout all cultures, in fact, storytelling has followed a similar structure: from before to after, from life-as-it-was to life-as-it-is-now, though a series of episodes and challenges. That sequential order seems to correspond to something deep in human experience. The sun rises, shines, and sets. People are born, live, and die.

The notion of rhizomatic movement isn’t meant to suggest tossing out the need for a central premise or the sequential order of a plot. Rather, it’s meant to give us permission— and tools— to approach our work in additional, complementary, and creative ways.

Have you ever worked on a story non-linearly—by creative association, rather than by cause and effect? Does this approach intrigue you? Would it disrupt your way of working—interfere with your process or, maybe, offer something new?


About Barbara Linn Probst

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES (April 2021) was the recipient of a Kirkus starred review, where it was lauded as "a tour de force" and selected as one of the Best Indie Books of 2021. It was also awarded the Sarton Gold Medal in Contemporary Fiction, as well as the Silver Medal in Fiction from the Nautilus Book Awards. Her third novel, THE COLOR OF ICE, will launch in October 2022. Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate for out-of-the-box kids and their families. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.

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