If, And, Then- How Math Made Me A Better Writer

March 19, 2011 at 9:09 am (Writing) (, , , , )

I loathe math. Pretty much always have. I oblige necessity willingly enough with retail math or I-have-to-build-a-set-that-won’t-collapse geometry, and I have a strange fascination with the Fibonacci number sequence that helps stave off panic attacks, but otherwise my feelings on the subject range from indifference to sheer and utter detestation.

Which really makes it suck, given that I have to credit it for a large part of how a chronic scribbler actually became a writer who finished stories that made sense. The other biggest part was fanfiction, but that’s for another time.

When I was in sixth grade, my reading and writing teacher- an absolutely amazing man- kept telling me that I needed to plan my stories. Every time we turned in an assignment, he’d tell me the same thing: the characters were good, the writing was good (you know, for a ten-year-old), but the imagination of the story couldn’t make up for the fact that it didn’t go anywhere. I sat down with the characters in my head and words poured out. They meandered horrendously. I started out well enough and I’d eventually (usually) find an ending, but getting from one to the other was like following a weaving drunk.

He found a better way to say that to the ten-year-old.

To my brain, though, that just wasn’t what a story was. To me, they were just written down versions of the make-believe I played with my neighbors. We came up with characters (Nick was always either a scientist or velociraptor, occasionally a a magician; Erica was usually a princess; and I was always a warrior a/o magician), as well as some basic world rules, and then we just went with it. Each game would sprawl across days or even weeks until we either found a resolution or got bored and started a different story. For me, that’s what writing was, only without the costumes and bamboo sticks.

It wasn’t until high school that it changed. I’d been working on some math homework right after school, and then my friends and I started rehearsing an ensemble piece for Districts (Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, if anyone’s curious). The homework must have still been in my head because as we were working on motivations and actions, the pattern of “if, and, then” came out of my mouth. I know it’s used in debate, logic, and philosophy, as well as the sciences, but I always think of it as a math demon.

Basically, it’s proving a point using two examples with the same result. For example: IF x+4=7, AND 4x=12, THEN x=3; on its own, either equation has multiple possible solutions. In the first, x could equal 3 or -11. In the second it could be either 3 or -3. With both equations together, we know for a fact that x=3. Somehow (and I’m still not sure how), this got translated into both theatre and writing. IF a character has this personality AND this event happens THEN he/she will react in a certain way.

I’d learned the secret of character growth, of giving them believable reasons to do things.

For a character to grow, of course, things have to happen to them, and if you want them to grow in a certain way, things have to happen in a specific order. Suddenly, A PLOT! The next rehearsal-free day, I went back to my middle school and squeezed the stuffing out of Dr. Carroll because I finally understood what he’d been trying to tell me. I still didn’t outline- outlines were, after all, an element of research papers, and therefore to be loathed- but I’d have a page or two where I told the story like I would for an extended book report where we had to tell the ending in order to convince the teacher that we’d read the whole thing.

Flash forward a couple of years to chemistry- specifically stoichiometry. Balancing chemical equations. I hope my chem teacher never reads this, because I had two levels of that class (honors and AP) and I can’t actually remember why stoichiometry is done, or how. Much shame on me (though, in my defense, I haven’t had a science class in almost eight years). What I do remember is, like math, whatever you do to one side of the equation, you have to do to the other. If you multiply by 2 on one side, you have to multiply by 2 on the other.

Now, this might seem like a strange thing to translate into writing, but it got me to thinking about balance. As I did my little story point bulletins, and as I wrote the stories, I realized that nothing was balanced. I had short, intense spurts where a lot of things were happening, bookended by long stretches where not much was happening. It wasn’t as simple as remembering to multiply by 2 on both sides, but paying attention to how things balanced helped me smooth out my overall story arcs.

Also in chemistry (and US history, as a matter of fact), we had to do book notes on every chapter. This was during my two years of Really Horrible Hand Problems, when I literally couldn’t hold a pen or type without severe pain and muscle spasms (those two years sucked, by the way). My amazing mother spent a lot of time working on homework with me, which is when we discovered that my brain works through writing things down, that’s how I figure things out. We also learned that everyone outlines in a different way. Trying to dictate the notes drove us both crazy, so we finally gave up, she wrote her own outlines, and I promised to read each chapter at least twice before the tests. But- that process, the result of that frustration, taught me a lot about outlines, about structure, and how they could combine with plot points and balance.

I made another visit to Dr. Carroll the day that all finally came together in my head.

I’m an outliner now. I plot things out, I look for the balance, I make sure I know more or less where I’m going. Things still surprise me, or things get changed because they don’t balance fleshed out the way they did as skeletons, or after the outlines are done I get fresh ideas, or whatever. They’re flexible, certainly not set in stone. Even when I change things, though, I still have a guide, something to tell me if I’m getting too far off track, that reminds me constantly of the final scene that all the rest of the book is reaching for.

I’d love to say that most of my writing skills came from my English classes, but as much as I loved them, what I took from those classes was a love of some books, a hatred for others, and the profound certainty that authors don’t mean to do even half of what English teachers ascribe to them. (Proof? I have a clockwork story with twelve chapters- complete accident. A friend had to point it out to me.) No, where most of the foundation of my writing took shape was in math and science, the subjects I struggled with and sometimes (usually) hated, but nonetheless taught me a great deal my instructors never intended.

IF you learn something interesting, AND you learn to apply it, THEN your entire life can change.

So what do you do?

Until next time~

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