Yep, I like math problems. But just like anyone, I feel frustrated and stupid when I don’t get them. The thing is, the harder the problem, the more satisfying it is to solve it. Here’s a pretty easy one I did recently (it had me stumped for a while though):

Find three positive, distinct integers a, b, and c such that:

a^3 + b^4 = c^5

(the ^ means raise to that power, i.e. 3, 4 and 5 are exponents).

This problem is “easy” in the sense that it does not require advanced math to solve. It came from a high school math contest (there’s a hint right there).

What’s this got to do with writing? For me, lots. Mathematics was the crucible where I learned to break my own stereotypes about my mind and about creativity. The problems that feel impossible (and then obvious once solved) are the problems that open doors.

I’ve noticed that in exciting movie and book plots a character is faced with two horrible choices, A and B, each with bad consequences. And the most interesting thing that happens is the character takes a third route C which the audience didn’t at first imagine, but in the context of the entire story, makes perfect sense. That’s what I’m talking about. Math was where I first had experience of finding route C. It isn’t the only way to train yourself to dream up route C, but I say it’s worth a try.

That’s the second interesting thing, that creative problem solving in math can be learned. The above high school problem is much easier for someone in high school doing that kind of math all the time. If you come to it like me with a mind full of laundry lists and ‘can I have a brownie now’, it takes longer. Immersion in that world is makes a big difference.