exploring a house of unlit rooms

One of the things I find most fascinating about the fiction writing I do is how different it is from my day job.  In my day job, I’m a mathematician.  In my day job, I take a question, a strange little idea, and I spend time, months or years, exploring that idea, wandering through the maze of its subtleties.  Exploring its dark alleys and blind canyons that lead nowhere.  Revelling in its occasional moments of clarity and advancement.
The art of doing mathematics has been described as exploring a house.  We start in one darkened room and we grope our way around, thinking that we are finding where the furniture is located and developing an internal picture of the layout of the room.  And then the light goes on and we realize that our view of the room was largely wrong.  We missed some pieces of furniture, misjudged others, and missed a door entirely just because we never made it to that part of the room.  We then have to spend tome time reconciling the mental picture of the room we created, with the room as we can then see it.
We then go through one of the doors and start all over again in another darkened room.
But for me, writing is different.  I tend not to follow or explore a writing idea to the same depth as I do a mathematical idea.  I am much more butterfly than miner, moving from one thing to another.  And I have started to ask myself, why.
I don’t know whether other writers follow ideas as deep as they go, largely because I think I don’t read entire oeuvres.  I’ll read a novel from X, a collection of stories from Y.  But I don’t start with the first thing X wrote, and then read everything they wrote chronologically from that first thing.  I’m not sure it would help, and I’m not sure it wouldn’t.    Perhaps I’ll make it a project for the Christmas break. And I’m sure that some writers do this deep extensive exploration of the branches and twists of some single idea, and I’m sure that some writers don’t, and now I’m wondering in which group I might want to place myself.
I think that I would much more like to be the sort of writer who needs to dive into an idea, wallow in that idea, explore it like I explore the house of mathematics and find everything I can find.  And that’s what I’m doing.  But there is something more of which I need to be aware.  That is, exploring an idea to its deepest depths takes time, and my mathematician side is used to producing one paper a year, perhaps a bit more, once the exploration reaches a natural end.
But if I’m going to do this exploration as a writer, I’m going to need to change how I view things.  I’m going to need to become willing to let people see the midway points.  I’m going to need to become willing to let people see me camped in the blind alleys.  I’m going to need to become willing to expose my explorations while they are still only half formed.  And for me, this shift is the hardest thing.
And so, I put aside this rumination and turn my attention back to the writing I haven’t yet done today, stories clamouring for attention and a novel that everyone I know is firmly convinced will never be completed.

~ by Jim Anderson on 1 October 2017.

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