Friday, November 22, 2013

How Math Inspires Writing

I've been asked to write about how math influences my creative process, so here goes!

As many of you know, I am a math and computer programming geek. It's such a serious hobby I take university courses part time to keep feeding it. Granted, that also complements my day job as a tutor, and creates all kinds of pockets through the day for writing, but it's more than just opening a text book now and again and doing some exercises.

At one time I thought I'd become a mathematician. I've had the pleasure of doing full-time research last summer to experience what it's like to take a math problem and explore it, and it was lots of fun. Although the problem was mathematical, I spent most of the summer developing a computer program to explore the problem. And, of course, I kept writing!

How do these two seemingly-different areas actually work together?

First of all, math is a language. Arguable, it is the purest of all languages (some have called it "the language of God"), and the evolution of mathematics is really the process of discovering how to express, in language, what is true. The study of mathematics is really, then, the study of how the structures of this world are ordered, and that includes what is logical or illogical. In order to get to the bottom of this, one must spend time thinking, and that is the most important thing mathematics has taught me.

I used to scribble down whatever comes to me, but now I spend a while playing it out in my head, searching for other possibilities, looking for implications until I am convinced this idea is best. Or, I might write my idea out, then think about it for a while before proceeding. Someone watching me as I do this might think I'm either zoned out, or doing some kind of meditation.

Notice I don't mention math there at all! This process applies to writing as well, which is my greatest passion. My recent book took me nearly a year to write, but it all hung together quite well, because I approached it the same way I've learned to approach math problems—and hence any problem before me. Even now, I use the same process to approach revision—rather than jumping in and messing with in-line changes, I've devised ways to look at the novel structurally and I spend more time thinking about the implications of changes than I do actually making them. Once I do, I go in like a chiropractor and give the particular bit of story the much-needed CRACK required.

Well, there you go. Proof that it's possible to do math and writing and not go crazy. Er...well, you haven't actually "met" me, so let's just pretend I'm not crazy...


Graeme Brown is a Winnipeg fantasy writer and artist, and a junior editor for Champagne Books. His first story, The Pact, is now available.

To find out more about Graeme and his book, visit his website:


Nikki said...

An interesting viewpoint, Graeme, since so many people separate math and verbal skills into different worlds. Math is indeed a language, one that both reflects and shapes our thinking. I've never understood why folks are so afraid of math; but then again, I can read knitting patterns, which panic some people.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nikki,

I've wondered about the fear of math myself. Guess its all a matter of preference and comfort.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

I feel your logic. As long as math is kept at the ethereal level, Physics and not Geometry, Algebra and not the checkbook, I'm a believer. My problem is accuracy.

“Math is the language of God.” Absolutely, and our small minds have much to learn before we’re ready for the inevitable equation.

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

I'm right there with you on accuracy...


I guess the other thing math has taught me (though computer programming has taught this lesson a bit more clearly) is that whenever something's "not working" it's because I've done something stupid!


Julie Eberhart Painter said...


Make that ill-advised, not stupid.

Liz Fountain said...

I'm playing with pure mathematics as a vehicle for magic in two books for middle grade/young adults. It's a fascinating discipline. Of course I'm writing about it - I don't know how to do it!