FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #314: On Math & Writing — the Rule of Three — and Ted Lasso


Sometimes questions come from far afield — in this case, the field of mathematics. Natalie — who could not have been any nicer or more considerate — wrote to me with questions for a school project. 
Natalie wrote . . .
I would like to ask you a few questions. If you do not feel comfortable answering my questions please don’t feel pressured to! I’m doing a project for one of my classes about writing, and how it can relate to math. For this project I need to ask a writer questions, and I heard you reply. My questions are;
1.) Can you describe what you do for a living?
2.) How is math used in your career?  Can you provide examples?
3.) How often is problem solving used in your career?
4.) Is there anything else you would like to tell us about how math relates to your career?
I replied . . . 
These are interesting questions. I’ll do my best.
1. I am a children’s book author. I write a range of books, from picture books for very young readers to young adult novels.
2. I get complicated royalty statements filled with numbers that make me cry. Seriously: confusing numbers, percentages, discounts, etc. Creatively, I think that math enters into story structure, the classic three-act formula. Beginning, middle, and end. Picture books are almost always 32 pages due to folios and printing standards. At some point, you have to be very aware of how (and where) your story is landing on the page. 
3. In storytelling, there’s the “Rule of 3.” We see it in humor, particularly, i.e., his bedroom smelled of old socks, axe body spray, and stale cheese. For some reason, it’s funniest with 3 items. Four is too many; two is not enough. Another example would be, oh, let’s see, a penguin who is determined to fly. For some reason, it appeals to the mind when we show the penguin fail once, twice, three times . . . and then succeed (in some way). I think that’s because it takes three to establish a pattern, a rhythm. It’s somehow comforting to the reader. My old picture book, Hiccups for Elephant, is extremely mathematical, since it is centered around patterns and repetition. All the animals are asleep. Except for elephant. Chimp wakes up, offers advice. It doesn’t work. Hiccup! Lion wakes up, offers advice. It doesn’t work. Hiccup! Zebra wakes up, offers advice. It doesn’t work. Hiccup! See that, Natalie? One, two, three. Now, finally, mouse wakes up, offers advice. It works! Ah-choo! The funny twist at the end. Simple mathematics. 
4. Not really, no. Ha! But, okay, as you know, math is hardwired into our brains. When I read a book — this is just me & my own idiosyncrasies — I am always doing the math. That is, I first like to locate the last page and note the number. The book I’m currently reading is 278 pages. I don’t have to look that up, it’s burned into my brain. While I read it, I am aware of when I’m 1/3 of the way through, 1/2 way through, 2/3 through, etc. It’s not just racing to the end, it helps me sense the shape and body of the story. Do you watch Ted Lasso? That was originally conceived as a three season arc. A beginning, middle, and end. Season 1 was wonderful because it set up the situation, introduced all the characters, established the problem. Season 2 suffered, in my opinion, because it was the middle. The inevitable sag. Middles are very, very difficult to write. But it will lead us to the conclusion, the end, Act 3: the satisfying resolution. Simple math, yes. It’s everywhere. 
Hope that helps.
James Preller
Natalie, again . . .
Thank you so much for the reply! I love these answers, and the examples used. I didn’t expect to get a reply from anyone until, I found a thing of you showing that you do try your best to reply to anyone, and everyone. I will be sure to put your quotes, and phrases into my presentation! Sorry for the random email. And if there was anything you felt uncomfortable with. If you have any questions as to why I asked, or maybe as to what the presentation is about don’t be scared to ask! If there is anything you wouldn’t like in the presentation let me know!



Subject: Interview questions (school project)

One comment

  1. Robin Pulver says:

    This is just wonderful, the whole exchange. Thanks for sharing, Jimmy.
    (Looking forward to Ted Lasso, season 3!)

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