Friday, September 16, 2011

On becoming a Writer

After reading all sorts of books now on the craft as well as the business of writing, there's one thing that is indelibly inked on my understanding: nobody's born a writer.  There are those who claim to have been so, but generally that claim counts as one of their works of fiction.

It hit me hard this morning as I was showering.  You see, writing is like math.

I could hear the heads exploding from where I sit, and I'm pretty sure I just caused every great literary figure to roll over in his or her grave, which could easily have caused an earthquake in Britain.   That's OK (as long as you're not British, anyway).  I'll say it again, and stand by my statement.  Writing is like math.

You see, I went home last night pretty proud of myself; I had once again proven myself to be a "job creator" (the fancy term that the politicos are bouncing back and forth like a beach ball these days).  A few months ago I identified a problem: fewer than 50% of our applicants were passing the math part of the entrance exam.  There already was an anemic (and optional) study/review session.  I wrote a new curriculum for it, beefed it up to run longer and twice a week, and made it mandatory for all applicants.  The program has been wildly successful at helping a large number of our applicants become students, and I've been mostly pleased with the result.  The "mostly" qualifier comes from the fact that I now have a large number of students in my College Mathematics class who know enough math to pass a test but aren't quite prepared for a college level treatment of the subject, but that's a challenge for another day.  In the meantime, the program is a success and so I hired somebody to replace me in running it.  Yay! 

It's not rocket science, so to speak.  The students don't have to do LaGrangians, or transform any equations of motion into Hilbert space, or even perform multiple integrations over partial solution sets or any of the other giblets of the mathematical repast.  No, we're talking arithmetic.  My review sessions are geared toward people who crumple into sobbing messes when asked to calculate the sum of one-half and one-third.

Then again, becoming a writer is like that.  Those of you who haven't studied physics and thus are probably wondering what the gibberish in my previous paragraph meant can take comfort in my similar confusion in reading higher-level essays on literary goodness.  The Hemingways and the Franzens of the world pretty much own that higher plane to which nearly none of us will ever rise.  In fact, if the literary world were like the scientific world in its naming of processes, we'd have the Hemingway transform, and the Faulkner transition, and perhaps we'd do a Franzenian in incorporating a certain style of ending. 

Luckily, literary folks aren't that silly.  But I digress.

The problem with successful commercial writing is that it doesn't look like literary genius at work.  It's a page of elegantly-done algebra instead of a solution to the Reimann Hypothesis.  That's the problem, though--it looks easy.  We're all scared of math (I use "all" in a kind of non-all-encompassing, extremely sloppy sense), but hey, that writing stuff only requires a subject, a verb, and sometimes an object, and so anybody can do it!

Not so fast there, Bucky....

One of the cleverer things I've done in my math review class is to start and end with the mantra that, I believe, is most responsible for the success of the sessions.  "Math is not a spectator sport," I'll say, gritting my teeth slightly over the grand cliche, and then I describe their homework.  They can't learn math from watching me, I explain.  They can only learn it by doing it.  I tell them to go home and work every problem in the book once on a sheet of paper (yeah, it actually takes three or four, but paper's cheap these days).  Then they have to set that paper aside and work every problem in the book once again.  Then, to be truly successful, they have to set that other paper aside also and work every problem in the book once again.  There's a psychological study I read some time ago that I can't find anymore to reference that says if you do something once you might learn it; do it twice and you're more likely to learn it; do it thrice and you're an expert.  Or--well, something like that, anyway.  It works, dammit.  I've now got the student success track record to prove it.

That, though, is what created the blinding flash of the obvious I encountered this morning.  Writing is like math.  Do it once, you might learn it.  Do it twice--yeah, you get it, right?  My own work is like that.  The first novel started out really horribad, but it got better toward the end, and a ton of revision and editing has made it....  Well, it's a novel.  The second novel is, I think, much better, but still hasn't had the revision process performed on it.  In the meantime I've been working on other projects, including writing the first novella and starting another.  I also started writing an entry to the Writers Digest fantasy fiction contest, but I couldn't get it to work right and there's no reason to pay an entry fee for something that's just flat not good enough to win.

Maybe my first two novels are okay, but not the greatest?  I'm not sure.  While I continue querying, I'm going to keep writing, though, and I have a very interesting idea for my third.  Maybe it'll be the proverbial charm.

1 comment:

  1. Okay, I was worried at first with your math analogy because I seriously suck at math. I can get through Algebra but anything beyond, and I'd just as soon shoot myself as persevere.

    "They can't learn math from watching me, I explain. They can only learn it by doing it."

    This, I get. Love your analogy now. =D