Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Solving for X

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W.H. Auden

According to the poet Robert Earl Hayden, W.H. Auden once said: “Writing a poem is like solving for X in an equation.” More recently, a similar analogy was employed by the journalist and podcaster Alex Blumberg, who explains:

I’ve developed a mathematical test to tell whether you’re on the right track. It’s called the “and what’s interesting” test. You simply tell someone about the story you’re doing, adhering to a very strict formula: “I’m doing a story about X. And what’s interesting about it is Y.” So for example, again, taking the homeless story, “I’m doing a story about a homeless guy who lived on the streets for 10 years, and what’s interesting is, he didn’t get off the streets until he got into a treatment program.” Wrong track. Solve for a different Y.

And while this might seem to make the art of poetry or storytelling feel unbearably dry, it’s really quite the opposite. As Jakob Einstein famously told his nephew Albert: “[Algebra is] a merry science. When the animal that we are hunting cannot be caught, we call it X temporarily and continue to hunt until it is bagged.”

Thinking of writing, or any creative endeavor, as a subcategory of this “merry science” clarifies many of the issues that confront the aspiring solver. The typical problem in mathematics or geometry consists of an unknown, some data, and a condition, and the same can be said of many of the narrative issues that a writer is compelled to address. When you’re first plotting out a story, particularly a novel, the number of individual decisions you have to make can seem overwhelming, but you usually have more information than you realize. Once you’ve spent even a modicum of time mulling over an idea, you wind up with at least an initial premise, a location, some primary characters, and a few of the major story beats—although, as I’ve noted before, many of these seemingly fundamental units are also the result of working backward from an earlier problem. When you line them all up, you generally find that they also imply other scenes or ideas: to get your characters from point A to point C, it doesn’t take a genius to see that you should pass through point B first, at least in your initial outline. (Point B often ends up being omitted in the rewrite, but it helps to lay it out blandly at first, if only in hopes that it generates some useful material.) And by the time you’ve laid all the obvious scenes from end to end, along with the connective tissue that they suggest, you often discover that you’ve got most of what you need. The hard part is solving for the remaining unknowns.

George Pólya

And you can’t do this until you’ve suitably arranged the pieces that you have, which can be easier said than done. Just as the first step in solving a linear equation is to get the variable by itself on one side, the unknown in any story can only be found once you’ve isolated it as much as possible from the surrounding elements. Hence the charts, graphs, and lists that writers produce in such quantities: once you’ve got everything down on paper in some kind of rough order, you start to see where the gaps exist. George Pólya, in his classic book How to Solve It, advises:

If there is a figure connected with the problem [the student] should draw a figure and point out on it the unknown and the data. If it is necessary to give names to these objects he should introduce suitable notation; devoting some attention to the appropriate choice of signs, he is obliged to consider the objects for which the signs have to be chosen.

And this last point is crucial. The outline isn’t the story, any more than an equation is the physical object that it represents, but by giving names or signs to the component parts, you can see through to the reality beneath for the first time.

In On Directing Film, David Mamet says much the same about identifying the beats of a story: “Here is a tool—choose your shots, beats, scenes, objectives, and always refer to them by the names you chose.” Once you’ve named the unknown, you can start to hunt for it more systematically, using some of the methods that Polya describes:

Look at the unknown. This is old advice; the corresponding Latin saying is: “respice finem.” That is, look at the end. Remember your aim…Focusing our attention on our aim and concentrating our will on our purpose, we think of ways and means to attain it. What are the means to this end? How can you attain your aim? How can you obtain a result of this kind? What causes could produce such a result? Where have you seen such a result produced? What do people usually do to obtain such a result? And try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown. And try to think of a familiar theorem having the same or a similar conclusion.

Pólya compares this “same or similar unknown” to a stepping stone, and he adds drily: “The new unknown should be both accessible and useful but, in practice, we must often content ourselves with less.” It’s a system of successive approximations, or good hunches, converging at last on an answer that fits. And if we’re lucky, we’ll find that X, for once, marks the spot.

Written by nevalalee

October 14, 2015 at 9:40 am

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