Once upon a long-ago, I hurled high school algebra against the wall. It’s the only time I’ve ever thrown a book. I was looking for the splatter, the ruination of mathematics. All those y‘s and x’s? They belonged anchored hard in sentences, not traveling at indeterminate speeds out of Chicago, passing other locomotives with the hijacked ghosts of a and b.
Oh, I hated math.
My hatred blossomed from a warped assumption: a person could be good at the humanities or good at math-and-science. Definitely not both. Knowledge was a path that forked in two, an either/or contraption. I filled my schedule up with AP English, French, and history. I wrote myself into a corner, neatly labeled, boxed.
This is not a good choice for a writer, a fabulist who must gather goods from all directions. I cannot afford to carve knowledge down by halves and quarters. Stories never thrive in boxes.
People don’t do well in boxes either. After college, I earned a Ph.D in English, and then, in classic karmic fashion, I gave birth to a math savant. All at once, the stakes shot higher.
My nine year old wakes up spouting word problems. She find patterns everywhere, understands Fibonacci at a glance. She invents algorithms in the same way I coin stories. Square roots, prime numbers and geometric tessellations deliver her to joy.
But here’s the rub. My daughter also loves to write. She has a notebook full of poems, a novel half-way done. She delights in rhymes and word play. She reads several books a week. She is equally at home if “x” is “9” or the final sound in “fox.”
What’s more, her younger sister is following right along, eyes and ears cast wide. As their mother, I am always learning. This is basic parenting; children stretch our boundaries. As a writer, the same formula applies: learn, grow, don’t set artificial limits. Be open to revision.
Back in high school, physics gave me hives. I marveled at the light-stroked waves in ripple tanks, but I never fathomed all their laws and angles, their parabolic barriers and perpendicular(ish) refractions. I memorized the formulas and spit them out on tests.
Now, life offers up a second chance. As a homeschool mom, a writer, I listen to Stuff to Blow Your Mind and How Stuff Works for all the dirt on garbage-powered cars and fracking, parasites and germs, mapping, creativity, and the metric system. I watch Vi Hart doodle mathematical spirals and Neil deGrasse Tyson describe a death by black hole. I subscribe to Brain Pickings for Anne Patchett and Neil Gaiman — and for the CERN science videos. I immerse myself in literary fiction, but I also soak up essays on neural networks , cognitive quirks, and the birth of stars.
I learn, decades out of high school, that the scientific method is a crucial state of mind. The writer Kevin Kelly argues that, “We can learn nearly as much from an experiment that doesn’t work as from one that does. Failure is not something to be avoided but something to be cultivated.”[i] This idea is not intuitive for me. As a writer, I cringe from failure and rejection. I want my first drafts to come out singing. I dislike the messiness of early pages, all their guts laid out, their incompletions and diversions, awkwardness emblazoned like a high-school dance. Sure, Hemingway famously pronounced, “The first draft of anything is shit” — but can’t I be the one exception?
Probability would say no. Math, again.
It turns out that experimentation, pushing limits and “cultivating failure,” is the only path toward better writing. Those sentences that make me cringe are the curving route toward story. If I lay nothing down, then I’ve only emptiness before me. For scientists and writers, progress means “falling forward.” There isn’t any way to skip those clumsy, awkward steps. I have to take the chance, make the leap. Otherwise, I’m standing still.
This far into life, I am tired of sitting paralyzed at my desk, staring at the blinking cursor, afraid to make a start. Fear held me back in high school math and science — the fear of taking risks, of getting it all wrong. Fear restricts me as a writer too, the shackle of a blank page hanging on my wrists.
No longer. Today, I have two bright girls who love language, math and science. They knock down my artificial walls, my binary diversions.
Today, I will throw words down on the page, string them towards a sentence, clumsy. I will move it, bend it, break it. It may or may not sing, but at least I’ll have a start. I will encourage splatter — for its patterns, its unexpected art. I will work on “falling forward.”
As parents, writers, human beings, we rarely hit the jackpot on a first run. Much of life is repetition. I ride the merry-go-round a thousand spins for a chance at that brassy ring. Spin on, then. I’ll follow in the footsteps of my kids, traipsing through knowledge like a playground. Even in my younger days, I loved the incandescent flow of ripple tanks, but now I dive them deeper, and I discover something more than fear, more than inhibition. I unearth poetry in the smallest things, the strangest places. In physics. In failure.
Even, yes, in algebra.[boxer set=”lisa-ahn-2″]
[i] Kelly, Kevin. “Failure Liberates Success.” This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking Ed. John Brockman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2012.
What a fantastic piece of work! You have done an amazing job inspiring our daughters to be confident and able in all fields of academics as well as life in general! I agree that “falling forward” is really the only way to move forward in learning. I will have to share this with those with whom I work! Great job, Lisa!
Thanks Pat — it’s a partnership. I’m pretty sure they get the math from you. 🙂
Loved this. I’m having to relearn how to “traipse through knowledge like a playground” again myself. Life’s pretty amazing if you kick cynicism and self-doubt to the curb.
Hi Chris — thanks so much. I love, love your essay on trucking. Glad to know we’re on a similar, stumbling, traipse-y journey.
This is a classic Lisa Ahn essay. Wise AND lyrical. Well done.
” Failure is not something to be avoided but something to be cultivated” – I need to have this tattooed on my forehead. Your daughters are lucky to have a mother learning right along with them – opening wide the doors of knowledge.
I’ll get the tattoo with you, my friend. 🙂 Thanks Brenda!
Lisa, I just love you and your girls. I always seem to relate so much to the things you talk about. To this day I am terrible at Math and Physics was probably my all time worst subject at school. The idea of ‘falling forward’ really resonated with me and seemed like the two words that I needed to hear right now. I’m going to embrace them going forward and give the boxes I put myself in a little kick now and again. Your posts are always a gift. Thank you.
I love that “falling forward” concept too. It takes some of the sting out of perceived failures. (The girls and I love you right back!)
You have raised fascinating questions here. As you talk about your own daughters, I am seeing that one key to their developing amazing skills in both the sciences and the arts might be the extra doses of confidence you as their mother are giving them. I am quite sure that the smarts are there too, but I wonder how many people who lean toward artistic tendencies (writers, visual artists, etc.) might have had some abilities in math and/or science that got lost in the shuffle. And what we believe we can do is what we are able to do. I had an absolutely dismal experience in junior high/middle school when the “new math” was introduced. Unfortunately, I did not have an understanding, caring algebra teacher. After that, I was totally turned off to math and science. Didn’t even sign up for basic chemistry or trigonometry.
In my fifteen years experience as a teacher, I saw the impact it had on kids when the people guiding them believed they could do it and, in turn, they believed in themselves. Your two girls sound absolutely amazing and I am glad you are encouraging them in such diverse subjects. They are going to have so many more choices when they reach their college/career years.
Judy, I always love your insights as a teacher. “And what we believe we can do is what we are able to do” –so true! I think you’re right about encouragement and faith. I’m sure I talked myself out of being “good” at math and science. Now, I’m talking myself into trying, learning. My girls inspire me, for certain.