One of the things I find most fascinating about the writing I do is how different it is from my day job. In my day job, I’m a mathematician. In my day job, I take a question, a strange little idea, and I spend time, months or years, exploring that idea, wandering through the maze of its subtleties. Its dark alleys and blind canyons that lead nowhere. Its occasional moments of clarity and advancement.
The art of doing mathematics has been described as exploring a house. We start in one darkened room and we grope our way around, finding where the furniture is located, the layout of the room. And then the light goes on and we realize that our view of the room was largely wrong. We missed some pieces of furniture, misjudged others, and missed a door entirely just because we never made it to that part of the room. We then go through one of the doors and start all over again in another darkened room.
But for me, writing is different. I tend not to follow, to explore a writing idea to the same depth I do a mathematical idea. I am much more butterfly than miner, moving from one thing to another. And I have started to ask myself, why.
I don’t know whether other writers follow ideas as deep as they go, largely because I think I don’t read entire oeuvres. I’ll read a novel from X, a collection of stories from Y. But I don’t start with the first thing X wrote, and then read everything they wrote chronologically from that first thing. I’m not sure it would help, and I’m not sure it wouldn’t. I’m sure that some writers do this and I’m sure that some writers don’t, and I’m wondering in which group I might want to place myself.
I think that I’m much more the sort of writer who needs to dive into an idea, wallow in that idea, explore it like I explore the house of mathematics and find everything I can find. And that’s what I’m doing. But there is something more of which I need to be aware. That is, exploring an idea to its deepest depths takes time, and my mathematician side is used to producing one paper a year, perhaps a bit more, once the exploration reaches a natural end.
But if I’m going to do this exploration as a writer, I’m going to need to change how I view things. I’m going to need to become willing to let people see the midway points. I’m going to need to become willing to let people see me camped in the blind alleys. I’m going to need to become willing to expose my explorations while they are still only half formed. And for me, this shift is the hardest thing.
Jim Anderson Professor James W Anderson is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and is also the Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience) for the Faculty of Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy.