This Writing Life - The Mathematician

Studying math?
I wrote stories from the day I learned to write and told them as soon as I could talk (maybe even earlier). But somehow I ended up going to college to do math. Not only that, I ended up doing maths, physics and further math for my last two years of high school, and nothing else. So why math?

I think it all began when I was about ten. I had to do an entrance exam to get into my high school. One of the papers was on mathematics. It had strange-looking questions about x and y and xy. Since I'd never seen any algebra before, I deduced that xy meant 10x plus y and solved all mysteries accordingly. I was hugely embarrassed when my school-friends explained my mistake.

Years later, the teacher talked about imagination and math. He said how he'd once had a student do an entrance exam with lots of imagination but completely the wrong idea. Then he offered us the chance to do a page of exercises for homework, or write a "mathematical essay." I wrote about waves. Math and imagination--and beauty of course; I was hooked.

Choosing to Win
Picking math (and physics) for my A-levels really wasn't so hard. When I took my O-levels I liked to go back through all the questions on each paper in the final five minutes. I'd check my answers against how much I knew and work out a range for my probable score. (Strange child; yes, I know.) It was easy in math--you can tell something's right because you get the same answer whichever way you look. It was okay in science--if the answer makes sense you've probably got it right. It wasn't too bad in foreign languages--I either knew the words or made a good effort at choosing sensible replacements. But in English? In English, how could I ever know how my story would be scored? Will examiners like those imaginative arguments, or will they, like brothers, think I'm just a pain

In writing I never knew if I'd won or lost. When it came to planning what to study all the way through college... well, that was my future and I definitely wanted to win. So I chose math.

Of course, the other reason is I kind of thought math was easy--foolish thought.

A Logical Lapse
I had to do another set of entrance exams to get into Cambridge. There were papers in math, creative writing, general intelligence, etc. I wasn't quite sure why they wanted to test my writing to teach me math, but I wasn't too worried. I'd already convinced myself the real achievement was simply in trying; I knew I'd not get in.

After writing an essay entitled "the sound of one hand clapping" without ever recognizing the philosophical reference, and scarcely even realizing one hand doesn't sound the same as two, I was even more sure I'd never get accepted. But somehow I did.

I bounced with excitement in the principal's office the day the acceptance came. I phoned my Mum and Dad and talked to my Granddad. And I set my feet on rather strange path for someone who wanted to write, because that's still what I wanted; I just thought I'd be a mathematician too. For my day-job maybe...

Beauty in Numbers
It's not so strange though, really, studying math and wanting to write. Lots of mathematicians are creative, especially in music. Think of the shapes and interlocking patterns of a piece by Bach. Then imagine them in words. Imagine the arc of a story like a parabola; watch its equation; make sure there aren't any sudden twists and turns that don't belong. Then look at the characters and make sure the logic's secure in the ways they interact.

It's not so strange studying math when you can't add up either (I love calculators). Real math isn't numbers; it's shapes and interlocking patterns; it's music and myth and magic; it's beautiful! And that's how you know when the answers are right, when you're taking your finals and there's fifteen questions of which you've only done three. If the answer's beautiful you've got a high score, and you've won; you'll graduate with honors as a wrangler (because it's Cambridge, and wranglers rule!)

Is it strange being a writer when you can't spell? I love spell-check and dictionaries too, and words are fun to carve into pictures and sounds.

First Job
Of course, after graduating there's that awful task of getting a job. I put it off for another year and studied mathematical astronomy--there's beauty indeed! Then I took a job writing computer programs to simulate missile guidance systems. Okay, I admit, that really is odd. Then I took another job writing programs to help design cars which was much more peaceable.

I wrote stories on green striped paper that came out of noisy printing machines. I wrote them on scraps of white paper with worn-out calculations on the back. I wrote them on the backs of old envelopes, on cast-off pages from spiral-bound notebooks, and in my head. I would've written stories on table-napkins except they tore too easily.

I was a mathematician, earning my living with a thoroughly enjoyable job, and writing for joy in every spare moment I found. Then I sent a Christmas book to a publisher and he sent it back--too religious he said. I sent it somewhere else and they said it wasn't religious enough. I sent it into a box beneath my bed.

I was a mathematician. Don't give up the day-job!

And Then There Were Three

I got married soon after college. And then we had kids.

Well, one kid to start with I guess. He was very adorable, as first kids often are, and he was very demanding. I scarcely had time to think anymore, never mind write (oh, and I gave up the day-job after all--full-time motherhood is every bit as full-time as its name). But I told my son stories all the time. I fell asleep reading books to him; woke up to his frantic cries of "That's not what it says!" And, when he announced that a story wasn't "real" unless it was written down, I wrote my Christmas tales with bright illustrations--borrowed his colored pens.

I wrote about a boy and his cat and my son took the book to school and it disappeared. Maybe someone really liked it. We had three kids to our name by then though, and I had school commitments, pre-school commitments, baby-sitting commitments, chess-club commitments, helping in class commitments... so I couldn't rewrite it. I still told stories (lots of stories that taught kids how to play chess) but I never wrote them down. Not that it mattered--all I need is to close my eyes; the memories and the tales still rattle in my head.

I took a writing course as well, and never finished it. The mathematician in me worked out that was how they could afford their guarantees. "We'll pay back your fees if you don't succeed," but if you fail to finish you're on your own. Still, I had a good excuse--we emigrated to the States, three kids and all!

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