Your Favorite Author is Very Good at Math

Here’s a different author interview to try:  ask your favorite author what his/her math skills are like.  It doesn’t take a great probabalist to predict the answer will be negative.  “I was never good at math…I could do the math problems, but I didn’t know why…”  One of my favorite authors is famous for the latter quote.  But, seriously, she could wrap you in equations and expressions – the funny thing is, she doesn’t know it.

The educational world segregates the creative arts from the technical from the first standardized test a child takes in school.  The words right brain and left brain are thrown around as if one hemisphere does the processing, and the other lies permanently dormant.  I often wonder if these classifications are simply our culture’s academic prejudices:  people are bred to believe that they are either good at one (liberal arts) or another (mathematics and sciences).   The few people who excel at both are regarded as profoundly gifted.  They buck the belief system, so we pretend to applaud them, while secretly we hate them.  It’s simply not logical to have a union with art and science.

In elementary school – through seventh grade—I was lumped into the liberal arts category.  All of my test scores, my projects, and my papers highlighted excellence in writing and visual arts.  I still have my awards for these products, the tarnished silver platter, the framed certificates.  In math, I was competent, but nothing special.  I switched schools for eighth grade and interacted with a technically-focused teaching model.  Even the writing classes were formulaic – the ‘Maury paragraph’ format, named after my high school, reigned.  By junior year, I had accumulated numerous state level awards for science, and my standardized test scores flipped:  suddenly I appeared to be talented in math and ho hum in the liberal arts.  By graduate school, my scores screamed, “Non-native English speaker!”

And here I am writing again.  Remember the Venn diagram?  The Myth:  the intersection of math and art is null.  The Truth:  there is no segregation of math and art.  The union of the sets overlaps – completely.  Mathematics is firmly embedded in painting, sculpture, and writing, performance via symmetry, temporal sequencing and set theory.  Math and art have such an inbred marriage that one cannot exist without the other.   See a painting you find particularly pleasing:  chances are there is symmetry of color, a scientific use of light and a subconscious use of the Fibonacci sequence.  Read a book you don’t like?  The sequence of plot layers may not converge, or there may not be symmetry in the points of view.  The rate at which the plot progresses may be counterintuitive:  any plot with a conflict requires a steep slope, while a romance does not.

Here’s an example:  A typical murder-mystery has a very predictable graph.  There is an initial spike – the murder – in tension, followed by the development of a foundation, background on who died, who is investigating.  Then the slope of the tension versus time graph steepens.  The increased rate may not even be linear, but exponential.  Finally, the graph plummets as the conflict is resolved, the murderer discovered.  A book series will end with a jump in tension at the end…the graph continues, in the next novel.

A novel structured alternating between the past and present also has a symmetry and parallel structure that builds the sense making framework.  The past must align with itself, and there must be a balance between the past and present.  Can’t follow who is speaking or when?  The math is missing.  The electrons must flow on parallel circuits or the system shorts out.

The outline of a novel is its equation, the driving force the path of the words will take.  If the equation does not balance, or if there are an excessive number of variables, the words will not read with flow.  Just as symmetric features on a face yields beauty, there is elegance in an efficient, mathematical delivery.  The subtle delivery of the pleasing elements of math separates the good from the bad, the great from the good.  If you’re a reader, you sense the math, but don’t articulate it.  If you’re an editor, the math is sublimated in your bones.  If you’re a writer, make sure you have an editor who is good at math, even if he or she doesn’t know it.

So, this is my passion.  I like to see the mathematical relationships in people, in their interactions with people, and both of these in the pages of a book.  In this blog, I’ll occasionally bring these relationships to life with graphs and expressions…a mathematical kind of book review.  My book review formula?  Zoom out to see the writing in a broader context; diagram as necessary.  Repeat.


8 thoughts on “Your Favorite Author is Very Good at Math

  1. Loved this post. I find it fascinating that I happened to find your blog (via Lydia Netzer) right at the time that I am reading the book IMAGINE. What I am reading in the book right now is all about finding insight by putting together streams of thought or learning that we usually don’t think of together. Such as combining fiction writing with math. I look forward to reading more of your blog!

    • Thank you! I will have to take a look at that book. The concept seems to follow from memory studies–building neural connections to increase retention of information.

  2. This is something that I’ve been talking with my 10yo nephew about. I really resent it that I didn’t know about the intersection of math and art until I was in my late 30s. All that math angst wasted when I could have been exploring cool things like Fibonnaci numbers and fractals and turning them into weavings and writings and other artsy things. Nolan is very artisitic and good at math, but fights the math so hard – trying to get him to see that coolness now would make it soooo much easier on him I think.

    • One great math-art activity is to draw to lines to a vanishing point, then draw trees of descending size (8 in, 5 in, 3 in, 2 in, 1 in) on each line — have the trees be 4 in., 2.5 in, 1.5 in, 1 in and 0.5 inches apart, respectively. This application of the Fibonacci sequence produces a very pleasing picture, much like the vanishing trees in my header.

  3. I love this article. In Montessori, the plan for the age 6 to 12 child is called Cosmic Education. Our goal is to bring the whole of the world to them and show them how it relates, not teach individual subjects. We need to read our Da Vinci book that we got!

    • Absolutely! We humans are so programmed to sort, that the liberal arts and the sciences have been (in mainstream thinking) placed in discrete, disconnected categories. That Da Vinci book is incredible (Playing with Loenardo books by Rocco Sinisgalli).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s