Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bird by Bird

I am an impatient writer. The rush to adequately express my thoughts makes me uncomfortable. You see I have a lot to explain and I don’t care to take the time to carefully spell it all out (insert sigh here). I am well aware that I owe it to my reader(s) to make their journey from one scintillating point to the next more of a tip toe through the tulips than a murderous leap.

I hate to read the murderous leap stuff almost as much as I hate to write the other.
So it’s time for a change. I need a new perspective much like the one I implemented to help me pass 3 years of statistics.

I realised that there were problems in my statistics future because while I languished in the bookshop queue with new stats book in hand I instantly regressed to my 17 and a half year old self. As I flicked the text open to a random page I was instantly transported to one of the perfect rows of individual desk islands set up in readiness for my final mathematics exam. The desk islands' sea was an enormous hall where I had sat through many achingly boring assemblies and school plays. My eyes caressed the exact spot where I danced at the formal with my sweetheart.

In contrast to that fun night the hall was now full of quiet. Pens, pencils and erasers were carefully lined up on each desk along with the examination slip, a bottle of water, and for those who insisted that they had a sore throat, (yeah right!) a pack of Butter Menthols. The only sound was a chorus of bitten fingernails drumming away as Sr. Fancy made her way down the aisles licking her thumbs and distributing the exam papers. Each exam paper was firmly placed face down on each desk. Each paper in danger of bursting into flames with the heat of each set of eyes as they attempted to reveal what lay within. Finally the command was issued: Girls, you may commence. There will be no writing for 10 minutes in which time you must read through the paper carefully….

Within a nanosecond there was the deafening sound of over 100 papers turning, pages flipping and a solitary stifled laugh. Mine. For within two nanoseconds came my appreciation of the simple fact that there was no way I could pass because I was crap at maths.
Back in the bookshop queue I reexperience the feeling that I am hopeless in the face of all numbers. I want to run off screaming, but I stay with it. Instead I pay for my book and then I turn on my heel and make my way from the campus book shop to the library. At the catalogue terminal I enter the word "statistics". Fourteen hundred and twenty six entries spring up along with a little bit of my lunch. I scroll through them slowly my eyes glazing over at the titles of these books ( The annals of statistics, applied statistics, computational statistics..). One catches my eye on the 157th page. It says "What is mathematics anyway?" By Reuben Hersh. Yeah, good question! I mutter to myself as I record the call number. I wonder off to the library's southern corridor in search of the book. I find it. It is an unassuming paperback with a very vivid cover. I flick it open and read.

After 10 minutes I am saved. You see depite the fact that everyone agrees that mathematical statements are true the author argues that any certainty is simply a mistake. You see regardless of our ideals, mathematics is done by fallible people, it is a human activity and mathematical truths are uncertain like any other truths. And it is now that I know that mathematics is a game. The numbers do not mean anything really. Mathematics is not an exclusive club for brainy people. It does not reside on the lofty, difficult to access, dusty top shelf. It is just a bit of fun.
My maths avoidance has been cured just like that. I can do statistics. I can do it and I might actually enjoy it. Right there in the library stacks I give myself permission to do so and what follows is 3 enjoyable years of statistics. My marks are fabulous. I enjoy every minute of it. I have been set free.

It is about 10 years later that Anne Lamott's book- "Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life" delivers a "What is mathematics really?" type cure for impatient writing.
In her fabulous book Anne explains:
"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brothers shoulder, and said, Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."
It is my solemn vow after reading Anne's helpful book to write a shitty first draft of everything. To write it all. To include all the details needed to connect the dots. To follow all the little paths that lead the reader through the tulips. To stop and smell the roses along the way.
My patience will come from just writing the next little bit, and not thinking about the hugeness of the task ahead.

Just like that I give myself permission to be a patient writer.