I suck at math. Just thought I’d start with that. I was alright until people started adding letters to numbers and then the unknowns won. Kicked my butt is more like it. My geometry teacher rounded up my 69.45 percent to a 70 so she wouldn’t have to oversee my repeating the class. Lucky her, she got me two years later in my second trip through Algebra II (a trip that ended in a gift B-). Tutors didn’t help. Calculators were useless.
The one thing that made sense to me was parabolas. I loved drawing parabolas. Still do. There’s just something spiritual about an infinite curve that meets at the base of its own horseshoe and while simultaneously angling up and away from itself forever. It was, for some reason, a more attainable idea than any Pythagoras ever came up with.
I’ve often wondered why I have this love affair with a diagram, as I’m sure you’re wondering why I feel the need to share my sickness with you. And yes, I do remember this is a column about writing. So let me attempt to make a little sense. When I was in college, I saw a 3-D rendering of a parabola in space. It was a simple computer image, basically turned to provide the depth lacking in the 2-D versions of my high school textbooks. I wanted to hug it. Now, I know why. That’s how stories should be.
In grad school we talk a lot about our “aesthetic.” When I talk to normal people, I call it “what matters to me when I tell a story.” Now I’ll tell both groups this – good stories operate in that three dimensional parabolic space.
First, I want my stories to operate along a vertical plane in which my characters do what I do – wrestle with a God who can be difficult to pin down or even feel at times. This does not mean all of my characters are Christian or even spiritual.But they are all confronted with divinity and respond in the variety of ways people do everyday. Without that vertical component, I see no point in telling stories.
But, just as the lines of a parabola move away from each other, so do many of the horizontal relationships of my characters. Life is hard. Love is harder. And people fall away from each other. Inherent in all of this are pain and hope and trauma and grace. But what I’m most concerned with is the continued presence of that point of connection, the joining of lives that would otherwise continue on, one moving gradually east while the other goes west. And that bond only really happens in the scope of a vertical and horizontal space.
And then there’s the third dimension – what I’ll call depth. For the first few years I flirted with the parabola, she was just a flat, u-shaped thing. But that slight shift of the picture opened up a possibility of growth and change that I want my characters to possess. Our culture trains us to judge people visually and immediately. We size up and reject or accept as soon as we can take in their hair, features, and clothes. Sometimes we make that choice sooner. But sometimes, if we wait, we experience something else about that person. And the experience opens us up to the possibility that our perceptions are flawed; that we are flawed. As a writer, I am possessed by the desire to communicate that our flaws are neither permanent, nor outside the healing influence of change.
So being a writer is about the depth of our flaws, the space between ourselves and the people around us, and the heights to which we are willing to climb or depths we will fall to find what is outside of ourselves. In other words, I’m still drawing parabolas, just without the numbers that might mistakenly make people think my fiction assumes certainty in and of itself.
Michael Dean Clark is an author of fiction and nonfiction and now an Assistant Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University. He is also mere inches from earning a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin. His work is set primarily in his hometown of San Diego and has been known to include pimps in diapers, heroin-addicted pastors who suffer from OCD, and possibly the chupacabra.