Monday, October 14, 2013

Two Important Words – and Four More

Today I live in the heart of Paris. I write full time. Every day I sit at a table and ask myself, what if?
        Daniel Tammet, in the preface to Thinking in Numbers

Those are two great words. Really, they're the writer's stock in trade. Everything we do as writers starts with those two words. What if? And once we get the what if, the next four words are equally important – And then what happens? The rest of it is just so much detail, right?

Tammet is an interesting guy. In his youth he suffered seizures, and was variously described as high-functioning autistic or a person with Asperger's. He is considered one of fewer than a hundred "prodigious savants." He has an extraordinary memory, I think he was the guy who set a record for reciting the digits of pi to more than 29.000 places. He "sees" numbers (each integer between 1 and 10,000 has its own unique color and shape to him.) And unlike most savants, he can describe what he sees, what's going on in his mind, which makes him something like the Rosetta Stone of neurology.

I happen to be reading his collection of essays, Thinking in Numbers, because the character of my new work in progress is such a savant – an 11-year-old who sees math.

I think we've all had the experience once in a great while (too infrequently for me) of mulling over a math problem and suddenly literally seeing the digits of the answer swing into position, like great wheels that fall into place, like your car's odometer when you hit 100,000 miles. For Trammet and for my character, that's how everything is. To them, life IS math. Or not even math, necessarily, as that implies rules and formulas and process. To these guys, numbers are what make up the universe.

So I'm doing research, and that's how I got Trammet's fascinating book. He points out that in some languages, there are different words for numbers depending on what's being counted. He relates asking an Icelander what the word for four was, and the guy rightly replied, "Four what?" Chinese is even worse. Cut a piece of fabric in half and you'd describe it with the word for two flat things like paper. Roll it up and you need the word for two long, snaky cylindrical things. But wrap it up into a ball and you need the work for two round things.

And then there are the Amazon rain forest tribes that lack any word for numbers, or any idea of numbers or counting. Stuff just is.

It's a funny world, but it's the only one we've got.

I'm also rereading Oliver Sacks' fascinating, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Great book. Also a little scary. Sacks is a neurologist who studies cases where things have gone haywire with people's brains, so they suddenly lose the sense of "left," things on the left simply do not exist for them, or aphasia, or develop sudden gaping memory deficits. He's not studying what' the brain is capable of, it's amazing complexity. He's called in when something goes wrong. There's his story of a guy who has no long-term memory, he can only hold a memory for a matter of seconds, so he is constantly, desperately reinventing the world around him to explain to himself where he is,, who he is. 

More often than not, Sacks is able to say what seems to have happened in the patient's brain, but not why, and has to admit there's usually nothing that can be done to correct it. Great book, but frightening.

I've already decided my character is a savant, with a great gift, but also with counterbalancing challenges. Not autistic or even full-blown Asperger's, but he's not good with people, and he'll probably be too literal. This kind of research helps me understand that, a little, and also understand how the world reacts to that.

So as I start pulling the pieces of the story together, I begin creating this character and then I ask, What if ... ?

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