Finding the Answer

I’ve interviewed journalist/writers, doctor/writers, teacher/writers, scads of lawyer/writers, but Manil Suri, whom I interviewed earlier this week for our upcoming issue, was the first mathematician/writer I’ve met. It was an interesting conversation, and I was happy to spend a fair amount of time talking about the difference between rational thought and intuitive thought, a subject about which I have written regularly here. I wouldn’t have guessed there was much crossover between the mathematician’s work and that of the creative writer, until, that is, Manil made this observation: When a mathematician solves a previously unsolved equation, did that solution already exist, or did the mathematician invent it? In other words, does every math problem that could ever be dreamed already have its answer waiting somewhere in the intellectual firmament?

Stories can certainly feel this way. Yes, we search and we search and we search for them, but once a story falls into place, there is almost always a feeling of having found something that already existed, much as Michelangelo said he didn’t carve David but released him from the marble. It seems logically impossible, but this sort of discovery is always a sign that you’ve found the narrative answer you were looking for.

Wherever stories come from, be it biological or theological, I prefer to see them as already existing. This way I don’t have to make anything up, but go find something interesting. Making things up is exhausting; finding interesting things is exciting. Plus, the best thing you can do when you find something really interesting is share it with other people. When you share it with enough people, one of them is bound to say, “Thank you! It’s just what I’ve been looking for.”

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