Math for Writers

math writingI’ve always loved math. Numbers behave predictably. If you add them up on Monday at bedtime, you will get the same answer on Friday at dawn. Numbers do not have mood swings. The “5” does not constantly compare itself to the “50” and get irate with the “100” when it can’t possibly measure up. If I stick to my writing goal of 500 words per day, I will inevitably have 3,500 words at the end of the week, and a reasonably-sized first draft of a novel at the end of five months.

People are not always so predictable. We have varying tolerances for late nights and early mornings. Our behavior toward others changes when we ourselves are insecure, or in stark contrast, when we feel as if the world is our Maine lobster. And size always matters.

As our writers began to assemble in small groups, we needed to create an atmosphere of genuine caring and trust. We found that sharing our written word with others is far more daunting than simply speaking to them. There is a certain vulnerability that comes with committing words to paper. The words somehow come to represent our inner selves, our souls if you will.

During the early weeks, three distinct groups of people came together. First, our resident author of three novels, Laura Rudacille, graciously offered to wrangle and advise folks who were “Nearly There” – those who had a completed first draft and were ready to edit and revise. All the rest of us secretly despise them. They are where we wish we could be. We can imagine ourselves in their shoes and we scoff at how easy their job is compared to ours. Need to cut 20,000 words out? No problem. Getting rid of stuff is so much simpler than creating it from scratch.

Our second group of authors wanted to write memoirs. A common question was, “Will anyone want to read this besides my family?” As we share vignettes from our lives, the answer becomes obvious: “Yes!”

The final group hopes to write about a non-fiction topic. Many stories focus on a place with which they have had a connection, or a topic with which they have expertise: Alaska, New England summer theatre, classroom management techniques, coping with grief, artistic renderings, one-room school houses.

Of course, those who are “Nearly There” marvel at how exciting it is to be at the beginning of a project. The empty book is a fluid object and infinitely changeable at will. It is not necessary to tear apart each and every phrase during construction. It is enough that all the recipe ingredients eventually get put out on the counter. It is so much more difficult to part with 20,000 words that we have slaved over and spilled blood for than it is to create 20,000 words from scratch.

These early meetings worked, in part, because emotionally we needed them to. We listened patiently to others because we desperately wanted them to also listen to us. We responded immediately and whole-heartedly to ideas that moved us, and offered up possible solutions to hurdles that initially seemed too high. When the deadline of the next meeting rolled around, we frantically made sure we had written something to share so that we would not fall behind “the Joneses.” And after the meetings we ran home to write, filled with ideas and creativity to fuel new passages of our books.

Every religion has a rule of reciprocity, encouraging us to treat others as we would hope to be treated ourselves, and our little cult of writers has begun to thrive in this atmosphere. But please don’t mistake this caring, nurturing environment for one in which interactions will always be excruciatingly polite. Sometimes we really need to know that we’ve dribbled chocolate down our chins or accidentally left our pants unzipped.

The laundry seems so much dirtier when we hang it front of a large group of people, but the trick is to hang it first in front of just a few people who care about us. They need not be friends, and in many cases it is better when they aren’t, but our human minds respond to criticism when it comes in a form that builds us up rather than tears us down. This is the essence of the successful small writers’ group.

I remain hopeful and enthusiastic for all our participants because of the joy in community that these first three groups have given to my own little introverted self. The process works. “The Joneses” are people worth keeping up with. And, unlike true math, sometimes a 500-word per day goal can produce far more than 3,500 words in a week.

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