Calculus and Chaucer

Or…How Math Made Me a Better Writer.

P.S (Pre-script): I discovered I have written blogs on this topic before. That just shows you how important it is to me. Consider it more evidence in support of my thesis.

If you are a person who needs for things to remain in neat, well-prescribed boxes, then stop reading now. I am about to rock your world.

I scored almost exactly the same on the English and Math SAT tests in high school. That’s right. 680 and 650. I remember because it was cool that they were so close. In a previous sitting my scores were 630 and 610. I am nothing if not consistent.

When I was a freshman at Emory, I took calculus the same quarter I took Chaucer with Dr. Bugge. (Don’t be impressed about the calculus–I barely passed.) For the lit class, I set about writing a paper to prove The Book of the Duchess was written to Blanche of Lancaster. The topic is only significant in that I was trying to prove something.

The Book of the Duchess–I read it in translation.

Calculus is all about doing proofs–extremely long math problems where you have the first equation and the last equation and you have to show the steps in getting from one to the other. If you skip any steps you get the whole problem wrong–the margin for error is non-existent. It occurred to me that I faced the same problem with the Book of the Duchess: I knew where I was starting, and I knew where I wanted to end, but if I skipped any steps in my argument, I wouldn’t prove my thesis.

Calculus–wish I could remember it as well as my SAT scores.

This is true in every kind of writing you do, even something as sensitive and emotional as romance. If you are going to lead the reader through the events of your story to arrive at the appropriate conclusion (They lived happily ever after!), then you have to make your argument without skipping any steps along the way. Would a high-society ingenue actually fall in love with the gardener? What circumstances and events would make that happen? The fact that he has a tanned, muscular physique and a thick mane of golden, sun-kissed hair will work in a certain kind of story, but if you’re trying to persuade the reader that they develop a deep, enduring relationship, you’d better give them more to say to each other than “You’re gorgeous.”

For example, in my new book, Maisie’s List, Peter Hunter’s wife, Maisie, left him a list of people to date after she died. Every single step leading to Peter’s choice of the right person had to be logical and justified, starting with a believable explanation for why Maisie created the list and why Peter would take her suggestions. Each candidate needed to be a likely choice for the list, and the reason they didn’t work out also needed to make sense. I couldn’t skip any steps. If a reader hits a point where he or she says, “Wait a minute, how’d that happen?” or “I’m not buying that,” then you may very well lose them before they get to your brilliant conclusion.

Worldwide release October 12

All writing is improved when you apply the basic principles of math. And to be honest, it wouldn’t hurt mathematicians to see the beauty of good writing. They could a use a little more skill with language to help the rest of us understand why proving calculus problems is as valuable as reading romance.

Fibonacci sequence in Nature–Mathematicians, may I have an explanation, please?

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