This may seem like a strange concept, but math and creative writing are similar in my mind.  When I was at CSU and told people I was getting a double major in Math and Creative Writing, the other students thought I was crazy.


Math abstractions and retellings

Math helps students learn to think abstractly.  You’re not just learning how to add three cats plus two cats is five cats, you’re learning how to add any three plus two item.  Algebra extends this abstraction from any item to any number.  X plus X is 2X no matter which number.  Calculus takes it even further.

Do we have to think abstractly in order to write and tell stories?  Absolutely.

The best example would be story structure.  We have an intro, rising action, climax, and falling action.  Writers and readers can imagine this abstract idea without connecting it to specific characters or plots.  Now we can apply it to our own writing.  The structure without context is abstract.

Next, we have many authors who enjoy retellings.  How could anyone rewrite a Cinderella (or King Arthur, or Sleeping Beauty) story unless the author understands the essence that is Cinderella?  It follows Plato’s idea of chairness.  Each reteller has an ideal for the original story and changes/adds story elements that don’t obstruct the Cinderella-ness from shining through, despite changes in settings and motivations and characters.

Math is what helps us learn to see the abstract and general form in the first place.  (Unless you tried memorizing math ideas rather than understanding them.)

Math equations and sentences

A math equation like 3*X = 12 follows the same structure as adjective noun verb object. The coefficients on a variable (the 3) are like adjectives. They describe the variable, the unknown, that piece we are trying to find (the X). The variable is the main character, the noun of the sentence. The equals sign (the =), describes what the noun is doing. In this case, it is equal to something, another adjective (the 12). We could say “The blue house is big” or “The shiny fish is wet.”

We could also combine sentences and equations. If we have 3X + 4X = 18, that is like saying adjective noun and adjective noun verb object. So, maybe “The red dog and tall dog is happy.” You see, there is only one variable, so there can only be one noun, a single dog that we have mentioned twice. In math, we can simplify the equation to (3 + 4)X = 18, or “The red and tall dog is happy.” We could even simplify this further to say 7X = 18, in the structure of “The red, tall dog is happy.”

See?  It’s all about structure.

The main thing is, we can only mix things that are the same sort (combine like terms).  I couldn’t say 2 + 3X is 5X, because that would be saying 2 somethings (for instance, dollars) and 3 others (for instance, diamond necklaces) is the same as having five diamond necklaces.  What? Just remember that the 3 is describing something, and it’s completely different than the 2.

We could even switch things around with the reflexive property and tautologies.  If X = 3, then 3 = X.  That is like saying, “If John is a happy person, then a happy person is John” or something equally redundant.

What about math problems that are unsolved?  3 + 5 = ? could be the sentence “Who is happy and tired?”  Unfinished math problems are merely questions.  Solving them can be like detective work.

(I’ll probably update this post as more ideas come to me, or I’ll make it a full page.)

How is Math Like Writing?

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