The Noble Arts

Writing is very much a noble art. To write well, there must be dedication to learning the mechanics of grammar. Without grammar, there is no structure for your stories to stand upon. You may have the most beautiful story in the world floating around in your head, but if you try to write it down without understanding the mechanics of grammar, you will never make that story come alive.

I overheard someone say once that “Writing is 50% mechanics, 50% raw talent.” I take offense to that statement because no one is born with a talent for writing. A person may have a talent for language, but writing skills must be developed. A more appropriate made-up statistic would be “Writing is 75% mechanics, 25% motivation.” Heck, I would even stretch it to 90% mechanics and 10% motivation. But talent? Talent isn’t necessary.

Grammar is mechanical which means it’s mathematical. It’s logical. There are rules to follow, formulas that describe the ways sentences can fit together the way equations describe the ways numbers fit together. Learn the rules of grammar, embed them into your psyche so deeply that you know them as well as you know yourself, and you will be a strong writer.

By strong writer, however, I don’t meant that you’re going to suddenly start publishing tons of books. That’s unrealistic. Books take a lot of time, a lot of emotional investment, and a lot of motivation. I have started novels that have dwindled down to nothing after I’ve written the first 30 pages because I lost my taste for the story. That’s normal. Not all the stories we write are meant to be finished.

Someone may view that sentence and ask, “Why write if you don’t intend to finish what you start?” Because finishing isn’t the end goal of writing. The goal of writing is to learn something about yourself and your style of writing. If you finish a project, that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating. In a way, however, your failures matter more than your successes.

If you start to write a romance story and then lose motivation to finish it by page 20, then maybe romance isn’t the correct genre for you to write. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer – it just means it’s the wrong story. If you start to write a story in first person and lose motivation by page three, then you’ve just learned that you shouldn’t write in first person. Our failures tell us our strengths and our weaknesses. Our successes are just us showing off, and that’s perfectly okay – when we succeed, we have every right to be proud of our accomplishments.

The irony of this is that there are tons of people out there who feel there are failed writers or that they are just terrible writers in general. This is far from true. There are no failed writers – there are just writers who have given up on improving their art. They have stalled themselves out due to whatever circumstances they have found themselves in, but they are still writers.

I remember the very first piece of advice I got from an author that I met when I was nine or ten. At that point in my life, I was determined to become a writer, and no one was going to get in my way. But the advice she gave was, “Write what you know, not what you feel.” In that moment, I resented her. I enjoyed her books, but I hated that piece of advice because I had no intention of ever writing what I knew about. I had no intention of sharing my broken home life with anyone, and I intended to use writing as a way to survive the alcoholic home I grew up in.

Over the years, I became more aware of the world, and now I can look at that piece of advice and be a little more rational. “Writing what you know” doesn’t mean that you can only write about the things in life that you have personally experienced – it also means that you can write about imaginary experiences that are based on knowledge you have attained through research or various other avenues during your life. As a child, I didn’t understand that. As an adult, I agree.

However, I still take offense to the “not what you feel” part of her comment because the best writing is the most passionate writing. People are drawn to passion. Think about the people you like the most. Aren’t the people you tend to enjoy being around the ones who aren’t afraid to own who they are and be themselves? Aren’t they the people who can stand up and proudly claim to love something that society tends to dislike – math, for example? We are drawn to passion. Write passionately, and people will be drawn to your writing.

Someone told me today that she found it interesting and admirable that I was pursuing a degree in math when I have such a strong writing background, as there is a tendency to assume that if one person is strong in writing, then they are weak in math and vice versa. I don’t know if there has been any statistical research done on this, but I don’t think that’s a true statement. Personally, I believe that the people who are good at math are the ones most likely to be good at English and vice versa. But there is a societal view that says you can’t be good at both, only one or the other, and it’s detrimental.

If someone is good at writing and math, that person is forced to choose one or the other or be viewed as a weirdo. As children, this matters a lot. No child wants to be good at both English and Math for fear of being labeled a complete nerd. As an adult, us nerds tend to own our identities because we’ve come to terms with our nerd-selves, but as children? In a lot of schools, it’s social suicide.

As someone who tutors both Algebra and English, I have seen that the people who grasp mathematical concepts the most quickly are those with an excellent language sense. The ones who struggle with math struggle with concepts. And no one likes overly complex word problems. Not mathematicians and not writers.

What I have seen, however, is that there is the same lack of confidence in a person’s approach towards math as there is in a person’s approach toward writing. People are afraid of getting it wrong. No one wants to answer a math question the wrong way because grading systems tend to be punitive, and people are afraid of writing because grading is so subjective. Some teachers take off points for stylistic choices rather than sticking to grammatical problems for point deductions, and that causes an incredible amount of confusion.

In some ways, I think the division between math and English lovers is the grading system. With math, there are concrete reasons as to why you’re getting the problem wrong. If you struggle with fractions (like many people do), then it is simply a matter of failing to understand the process and apply it correctly. But if you don’t understand the process and never learn to apply the process correctly, then you may end up being one of those people that hate math. Instead of thinking that maybe the way it’s being taught is an issue, you think, “I’m bad at math,” and so you give up on it. This turns you into an “English person.”

On the other hand, English teachers usually grade essays. There are a lot more rules to follow in a much larger space, so writing can be seen as more difficult. In a basic essay, there are five paragraphs, and each paragraph has to follow a certain format. In each paragraph, each sentence must be grammatically correct. There must be bridges from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next. There must be supporting evidence and commentary. There must be documented research. Grammar mechanics may be glossed over, or a teacher may assume students have learned basic grammatical rules in a previous class. Without a good grasp of basic grammatical structure, you will become overwhelmed by all the rules that have to be followed, and you get bad grades on every paper you turn in.  You might think, “I’m bad at English,” and so you give up on it. This turns you into a “Math” person.

And I can relate to this because I used to be like this. In high school, I preferred English to Math because I could make A’s in English. My Math grades were B’s and C’s. I used to think I was terrible at math because I was so much better at English. Then I started playing video games. For those of you who know anything about hardcore pc gaming, you know that when you get to a certain level, metagaming (a.k.a. Theorycrafting) comes in. Theorycrafting is math. It is math used to determine the best method of play for certain classes in a game.

When I started getting into hardcore gaming, I realized that I needed math. Here was a place that was applicable to the real world, a place where I would actually use what I had learned. But when I started getting into Theorycrafting, what I realized was how much math I had forgotten. I learned how much I didn’t know, so I had to reteach myself a lot of math before I could do any serious Theorycrafting. I felt a bit overwhelmed because I thought I was bad at math.

Then I started raiding with Van, and we became fast friends. While he didn’t teach me Theorycrafting himself, I saw the way he applied it, and I was in awe. Here was a guy who played the game so seriously that he had calculated every spell he was going to cast during a boss fight. And the numbers he pulled were astonishing. Then I learned he was a math major, and I told him about my problems with math. He encouraged me to give it another chance, explaining to me that most of what he learned he had to teach himself because most of his math teachers were bad. Until that point, I never even considered that my failure to learn wasn’t entirely my responsibility – my teachers were also responsible.

A lot of people fall into this trap – I see it all the time at my college. Students think that they shouldn’t bother teachers with questions, that they should be able to figure everything out on their own. But education isn’t meant to be one-sided. Teachers are meant to help guide us to an understanding of the subject, not feed us all the answers or yell at us if we have trouble grasping concepts.

And it is concepts that we must grasp if we wish to do anything well in life, whether it is writing or mathematics. We need to learn how to apply concrete methods to abstract thinking, and writing and math are both abstract processes. Mathematicians use equations to evaluate abstract ideas like the compression of space and the expansion of the universe, while writers use the mechanics of grammar to explore the beauty and the horror of the world we all live in.

Writing and mathematics are not separate beasts with one being more abstract than the other. Both are tools used to explore the world around us. Each of the tools give us different results and different knowledge, but the combination of writing and math gives us a better understanding of the universe around us. So, like writing, math, too, is a noble art.

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