I’m so happy to have Carolyn Rose back again–Carolyn is practically a mainstay of the blog! Her Made It Moment appeared here and her last guest post here. And today she is sharing her thoughts on how math might really help us in this writer’s life–hint: it’s not just the ole balancing-our-checkbooks saw we heard as students–and concluding with a decision she made that is so in-the-news right now, the Wall Street Journal recently weighed in. Please read on–and leave a comment if you’ve been considering the same momentous leap, or possibly have made it already.
Why the rules of math don’t apply to the past – and how that will change my future as a writer.
Okay, so I wasn’t much good at math back in high school. Math didn’t allow for much of what I call the BS or fudge factor—an answer was either right or wrong.
I’ve always been fond of the gray areas, of arguable choices, the morally ambiguous questions, those fascinating either/or situations.
And let’s face it, math has changed since my cheeks last hit a classroom seat. And so have the tools. Adding machines and slide rules are gone, replaced by calculators so complicated that you need an owner’s manual to find the “on” button.
A few days ago, while trying to help a student, I ran aground on the reef of parentheses and the order of operations. Because I neglected to perform the multiplication function before addition and subtraction, we arrived at the wrong answer. By performing operations in the order they appeared, I got an answer of 14. With parentheses setting aside the multiplication function, I got 18. Only four points off, but the answer was as wrong as if I’d been off by 1000.
Pondering that later, I wondered how different my life would be if I could set aside portions of it inside parentheses and divide or multiply by other portions. Where and who would I be today if I had been able to minimize or maximize specific episodes or incidents?
For example, I might take a particularly embarrassing episode and divide by a letter of recommendation or an award. I might multiple disappointments by glorious vacation days.
How would that affect my writing?
Let’s say that I could take the trauma of the day the elastic broke on my underpants in second grade and divide that by the exhilaration of bobby-pinning a silk scarf to me head in third grade when I was chosen to play the coveted role of Maid Marian in a spontaneous playground production of Robin Hood’s adventures. Would that leave me with less empathy? Would that, in turn, affect my ability to create complex characters?
If I took the experience of watching my father die and divided that by a sunset at the ocean or gentle snowfall in the mountains, I might reduce the pain of losing him. Would that make me less sympathetic to others’ grief and loss?
Conversely, if I multiplied the experience by other losses, I could intensify the agony until my nerves were raw and my mind was a swirling vortex of torment. Would that give my novels a more bleak and hopeless tone?
If I took my first teenage crush and multiply that emotion by the thrill of getting a news crew to a breaking story before the competition, would I be able to write a love story that would resonate with all readers?
If I took my one frightening rock-climbing experience and multiplied it by that terrifying white-water canoe trip and then by the day I hit 130 in my grandfather’s Buick on a straightaway in Texas, I might produce the excitement level necessary to craft a nail-biting thriller.
Now, say it was possible to take the short stories I published and multiply that small success by my PNWA prize. Would I then be more devastated by rejections, or would I have so much confidence in my writing that the slings and arrows of rejection rolled off my psyche like water off a duck’s back?
Going a step further, if I could take the skills I developed as a writer and multiply those by my work ethic and determination, would I have a bestseller by now?
But the rules of math don’t apply that way, so none of that is possible.
Yes, some experiences outweigh others, but each experience remains unique and alone, the memory of it painful or thrilling, satisfying or unfulfilling, delightful or tinged with guilt.
Experiences accumulate, memories pile up. Time, like drifting snow over a long winter, obscures some memories, softens the shape of others, and leaves a few bare. And time, like a relentless wind, scours those memories, dulling and smoothing the jagged edges of loss and disappointment, polishing small successes until they gleam like silver, and honing needle-sharp points onto betrayal, remorse, and regret.
I can change nothing in the frozen landscape of my past; I can only learn from the landmarks and make different choices in the future.
This spring I re-examined my goals and found # 1 was the same as ever—to have the thrill of sharing my stories with readers, ideally with many readers.
With that in mind, and with the realization that time seems to be passing at an ever-faster rate, I made the choice to break the cycle of hope-submission-rejection-despair-wound licking-ego healing-hope again. I self-published a suspense novel, An Uncertain Refuge, and put it up for sale at a bargain price.
Was that the right decision? I don’t know. This isn’t black-or-white math, this is the gray area of real life. All I can say is, “It was a different decision.”
Carolyn J. Rose grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, and spent 25 years as a television news writer and producer in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She has published many mysteries and lives in Vancouver, WA, with her husband, radio personality Mike Phillips, and a motley collection of pets. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking.