Making Art is Like Solving an Algebra Equation

Raise your hand if math frightens you. Yep, I thought so. Artistic types generally don’t mesh well with math. And mention algebra and you might as well mutter a four-letter word. It’s the subject most students abhor. I know, because I get to teach it each year to my sixth graders.

When I broach the idea of Algebra I start by asking what languages they all speak. Up comes answers like Spanish, Korean, Tagalog. Then I tell them that they will learn a new language — Algebra.

Even though it’s math, it’s actually a way of thinking. Math education beyond 6th grade really consists of teaching a thought process. Who, in the real world, is ever going to use a quadratic equation or trigonometry? Unless you end up in the sciences or engineering, ratios and basic algebra are all you need. I was thirty years old before I ever needed a practical application for the Pythagorean theorem (setting out posts for a garden pergola that needed to be at perfect right angles).

Yet as artists we utilize the ideas of algebra everyday. Before you shut down mentally, let me give you an example. 

I lucked into an online seminar for fantasy writers earlier this year and one of the presenters was Tomi Adeyemi, author of Children of Blood and Bone. Now, to be fair, she said she loved studying algebra in school. But the way she used it in her writing struck a chord with me.

She plays with the unknowns and doesn’t fret about solving them too early. She said that she knew what she had (a setting for example) and needed to discover the story that fit that setting. In other words, she was taking a constant and solving for the story.

This technique is used by authors all the time. Here’s another quote from Adeyemi: “If anyone ever recovers my notes for my first draft it’s like, ‘Insert fight in the desert here’.” But she wouldn’t worry about writing out the fight scene immediately.

That’s an algebraic way to think. Algebra teaches you to become comfortable with uncertainty and the unknown. The hardest thing for my students to grasp is that there often isn’t a numerical answer. Sometimes, at the end of the process, all you have done is changed the equation.

I recall a calculus exam I had in college where it too me two hours and all it did was simply one equation. 

So what can this teach us as writers, painters or musicians? We don’t need to have all the parts assembled to move forward on our project. Paul McCartney often claimed he needed John’s input to fill out the missing pieces of a song. Artists might work on a series of drawings until they arrive at the proper composition.

A takeaway is this: Don’t be afraid to leave parts of your work unknown. As you delve into the project, these variables (x or y) will ultimately get solved. If algebra teaches us anything, it’s the ability to keep moving forward even when there are elements of the problem left unsolved.

Tim Kane

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