Words on the Street, Revisited #8: Do the Math

Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.


Last week during a meeting with a student who is working on a memoir, our conversation turned to numbers. More specifically, dates. “Just curious,” I asked, “have you made a timeline yet?”

I wasn’t referring to one where she logged hours she’d been working on the manuscript. Or how much time she may have spent sorting through a random tin box, one that’s maybe been on the top shelf of her pantry forever, labeled “miscellaneous hardware.”  Or the minutes dusting in between every slat on her window blinds. Most writers learn this nasty but fresh Pine-Sol scented secret by doing, and not doing: At some point, while working on a book, things that had never been paid attention to before get cleaned and sorted and made to look all shiny and new.

But this wasn’t that. This wasn’t about keeping track of what we do when we want to be writing but aren’t. (For more on what we do when we are not writing, check out Jessica Pavia’s WODT column “In Defense of Not Writing” or sign up for author Patricia Dunn’s newsletter, “How Not to Write.”)

This was about a real true-blue, trusty timeline of events illustrated in her story. A visual to help the writer match up numbers with the corresponding memories.

“I did one when I started but I think I need to do it again,” she said, “because sometimes I am sure I remember something but then it gets lost in the process or I remember something else. And the dates get jumbled up.”

Jumbled numbers. That’s me, on most days.

This is not uncommon for those of us whose literary pursuits mean serious remembering, the kind that can make a person either very tired or very wired.  Many of us often have crisp recall of the sensory and atmospheric tones of a recollection-colors, smells, whether it was humid or pouring rain, and so on- but when it comes to things like dates or ages, literally drawing a thick line and adding numbers can help.  I suggested that this student make the line (again) and do the math, noting months, years, times and maybe grades in school. Plugging in other events might involve going back to yearbooks, old letters or newspapers. Sometimes confirming dates not only involves addition and subtraction but also a call to that one person in the family or friend group who “knows that stuff.” (In my case, it’s my sister, Lucy.)

Even if you are, like me, a hopelessly devoted rememberer of the visceral, the animal and the ethereal, giving math a chance to help ground and inform our process can, in turn, ground and inform our stories. Timelines work! Grab a blank sheet of paper, maybe some colored pencils (because why not?) and do the math.


I wrote an essay a few years ago about lasting friendship, motherhood and the ocean.  In it, I recall my childhood phone number and those of my girlhood friends, too. While working on the piece, it took a while to pull them back up, to locate them. Some serious mining, chipping away and chiseling had to happen but, sure enough, once I landed on the right combination of numbers, I felt it. In my gut.



These numbers rolled off our tongues in those days. Now, it’s sometimes hard to remember my own. (I want to believe the reason for that is not because I am in my fifth decade on this planet but more because I don’t have to remember phone numbers anymore which, when I think hard about that, makes me sad and embarrassed.)

Remembering the phone numbers ignited excitement, promise even. Sure, there were break-ups and prank calls but there were also long late-night chats about love and hope and all the places we’d go and see and discover when we “got out of this town.” And who remembers what happened when someone picked up on the extension? A lesson in how to handle intrusion and awkward interruptions, for sure.

In The Book of Delights Ross Gay writes about phone numbers, too. The chapter entitled “82. Kayte Young; Phone Number: 555-867-5309” he illustrates his appreciation for a few small doses of unexpected beauty, one being a little tag on the inside of a friend’s backpack “with a space for a name and phone number.”

Gay shares: “There may have also been an ‘If you find this please return to.’ And Kayte had filled it out.” Later in this short essayette, Gay notes that he views the filling out of that tag as an act of “faith in common decency.”

Who knew phone numbers could feed our work in these ways, these unexpected, delightful ways? Whether it’s the memory of old ones that represent youth and innocence or simply meditating on what sharing one can mean in today’s heavy world, telephone numbers can offer writers a fresh way to think about communication and connection.

That said, I’ll end with this writing prompt:

What comes to mind when you imagine a phone number, written in ink or marker, on the palm of a hand or forearm? Write that story.


Now that I got all that “math talk” off my chest, I will leave you with where my writing soul is on most days. My worn down and in copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones sits very close to me when I write. In the chapter “One Plus One Equals a Mercedes-Benz” she reminds readers:  “I always tell my students, especially the sixth-graders, the ones who are becoming very worldly-wise: Turn off your logical brain that says 1+1=2. Open up your mind to the possibility that 1+1 can equal 48, a Mercedes-Benz, an apple pie, a blue horse.”

Here’s to blue horses and apple pie. As for the wheels, I’ll take an Alfa Romeo, red with a convertible top.

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