Saturday, October 30, 2010

Let go of the fear of flying

Start as you mean to continue. My mum used to say that.

My mum said a lot of things.

I’d ask mum how to spell a word.

“Look it up,” she’d say.

Yeah. But I don’t know how to spell it.

Tough beans.

Imagine standing there, wondering how to spell psychologist or elicit-illicit. Where do you start? Sometimes look-it-up doesn’t help.

This conundrum figured as among my biggest challenges as a writer. How does one get past (passed?) the nuances of the English language? It’s a language beguiling and beautiful. But it’s also a difficult, frequently contradictory language that, in all of its malleability, can be frustrating in its magical elusiveness.

How did I get around the puzzle of finding words when I didn’t know how they were spelled?

I didn’t.

I just exposed myself to them. I saw words in everything. There were words in the newspaper, the telephone book, that damn dictionary designed to tease me.

I said, ‘Okay, if I must, I will get this language thing; spelling be damned.’

Today — and every day, for that matter — I am a writer. I get paid to write.

I spell words in my head. I see words in my head. I see the words whole, as units, even complicated ones. I am sometimes baffled by my ability to use words so easily. It seems the mere ‘exposure to words’ created a neural network — an internal scaffolding in my brain — that became twinned with an unconscious imaging process.

While the spelling of words was my mother’s gift to me, the matter of their use was squarely in my father’s domain. My father’s genius was to puzzle me into something I’ll call proper use. It’s the way one marries words to construct things we call thoughts, ideas and so forth.

Dad was a stickler. By about seven years of age, I knew most of the basic elements of sentence construction. Not that I could readily identify subject-predicate, verb-adverb, noun-adjective. But dear old Dad did imbue me with an understanding that gave me the second key to the kingdom of writing.

Forty-five years later, I’m writing about writing — its foibles, its marvels.

I also have a passion for mathematics. It’s scarier than language, what with all its symbols and logical constructions. As with writing, the best way to wrestle the beast into submission is to expose oneself to it.

The squiggly symbols of the calculus are immediately frightening. ‘I’ll never understand that!’

It’s surprising, though, how quickly one becomes less fearful. After all, mathematics is very much about convention and agreement, much like language. In order to develop a mathematical theorem one must accept the conventions, many of which are arbitrary. (If you like, you can develop your own personal ‘conventions’, but then chances are no one will understand your stuff, either. The good thing is that all the bull work — the bull work of the bulwark — has already been done; it’s just a matter of accepting the conventions then getting on with it.

One of my favourite examples of the magic of mathematics centers on a German fellow by the name of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, co-discoverer with Isaac Newton of the infinitesimal calculus. (It should be noted, however, there is some debate as to which of the two should be given ‘priority’ in the discovery.)

As a lad, Leibniz was asked to answer what most would suggest is an impossible question. ‘What’s the sum of numbers between 1 and 100, including 1 and 100?’

You’ve got to be kidding me!

Leibniz answered immediately: ‘The answer is: 5,050.’

How did he pull that off?

Apparently, Leibniz ‘saw’ the numbers as arrayed along a line. He flipped the line in half so that 1 aligned with 100, 99 with 2, 98 with 3 and so forth. He immediately recognized in his mind’s eye that each of the 50 sums was 101. That is: 50 x 101= 5,050.

Using algebra one can then determine the sum of numbers from 1 to N by the same method. The formula becomes N/2 ‘times’ (N + 1).

Most people are probably numb by now, so deeply ingrained is our fear of numbers and their ‘manipulation’ in such areas as trigonometry, algebra and calculus.

My suggestion on the language and mathematics fronts remains, however. If we fearlessly go where we have not let ourselves travel before, merely by reading and parsing math texts, we can take down the beast of our trepidation.

Let’s boldly go where no one has gone before.

1 comment:

  1. Unlike Leibniz, I'd be doing it the long way!!! LOVE the article and the photo of Lake Winnipeg!