Friday Speak Out!: Algebra for Writers

Friday, August 17, 2018
by Lee Zacharias

I knew I wanted to be a writer from second grade, when I first put my hand up for show-and-tell and made up a story. I never knew what the story would be, but there was a certain logic to my tales. The longer I could draw out the suspense the less time we had for arithmetic.

So it might seem odd that when I got to high school I fell in love with algebra. To me the beauty of algebra was its system of logic. That my son never bought this argument when I was helping with his homework is beside the point. Writing is a process of posing problems and figuring out answers. There is a kind of algebra to writing a novel.

Some problems may be mundane: how to drain a lake, how to evacuate a ship? (Research helps there.) But the most pressing problems are more profound: why is this story being told, why now, what is the resolution, what does it mean? Sometimes you have to dig deep; it may take years to discover the answer. I was more than twenty drafts into my new novel, Across the Great Lake, before I knew who the ghost was. At some point in the first I knew why my narrator was telling her story, knew her secret, knew pretty much how the story would resolve, but I did not know who the ghost was. After all, the Great Lakes have a lot of ghosts. Why shouldn't any one of those spirits visit her?

But my narrator's ghost didn't come from Midwestern lore—I stole her from a night I once spent at the Island Inn on Ocracoke, nearly 1200 miles away from the Lake Michigan railroad car ferry where Fern's ghost visits her. I was at the edge of an ocean, not a Great Lake, but something about edges puts one between one world and another. Mrs. Godfrey—whose identity is fairly well documented, I've learned since—did to me what exactly what Fern's ghost does to her, grabbed my big toe and held on. (Is it a coincidence that the same toe later developed hallux rigidus and required a surgical implant?) She made for a restless night, but I might have convinced myself I'd imagined it or had a bad dream if the desk clerk hadn't taken one look at my face when I came downstairs the next morning and said, "Would you like to change rooms?" Yes, and Mrs. Godfrey never bothered me again. Why she chooses certain rooms over others I can't say. Ghosts keep their secrets. Perhaps that's why it took me so long to discover the identity of Fern's.

But a ghost in a novel can't be just any ghost you've read about in legends or even encountered yourself, unless you figure out why. A ghost needs a purpose, and once you realize that purpose you have found X, and it is that X that immeasurably deepens the meaning.

* * *
LEE ZACHARIAS is the author of a collection of short stories, Helping Muriel Make It Through the Night; three novels, Across the Great Lake, Lessons, and At Random; and a collection of personal essays, The Only Sounds We Make. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, North Carolina's Sir Walter Raleigh Award, Southern Humanities Review's Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award, Prairie Schooner's Glenna Luschei Award, and a Silver Medal in Creative Nonfiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (the IPPYs). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and been recognized by The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Essay, which reprinted her essay "Buzzards" in its 2008 edition. She taught at the University Arkansas, Princeton University, and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she is Emerita Professor of English, as well as many conferences, most recently the Wildacres Writers Workshop. Find her online at
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Joanne said...

Wow, what a story...and an interesting metaphor for figuring out a piece of writing!I visited Ocracoke for the first time this summer, so the reference resonated. I didn't stay at the Inn, though! :)

Angela Mackintosh said...

Beautiful post, Lee! Wow, the scene at the inn is super creepy. I can see how writing is like math. There are so many problems to figure out. It's great when you can use a real life experience for fiction. I agree, for a story to be strong, every element needs a purpose.

Your bio is super impressive! What a dream to be in the Best American Essays. Thanks for the post, and I will definitely check out your work! :)

Patricia McGoldrick said...

Hi Lee,
Math was never my forte but your piece has put a whole new spin on algebra!
Also, this encourages me to continue working on a couple of stories. Thanks.
Patricia from Ontario, near the Great Lakes-- Ontario, Huron & Erie


Patricia McGoldrick
Twitter @PMcGoldrick27

Margo Dill said...

I'm so glad you figured out your X! I have a few variables to figure out myself in my current WIP.

I agree with Angela--what an impressive bio!

Lynn said...

Love the analogy to algebra. Used to find my math classes a mental cleanser when I was deep into writing for other classes. Story of the ghost a bit scary. Would rather be faced with an algera test than a real, toe-grabbing ghost.
Super intimidating bio :)

Lee Zacharias said...

For J. Glenn: The Island Inn is now closed and in terrible disrepair. The community is looking for someone to buy and restore it.

Lee Zacharias said...

For J. Glenn, Angela, Patricia, Margo, and Lynn: Thank you! I really appreciate your comments and am sorry to to have replied sooner, but I just saw this today.

Lee Zacharias said...

Thank you!Bio really not so intimidating. It doesn't list the many rejections!

Lee Zacharias said...

Oddly my laptop did not offer an option to reply, but my phone does. I've been distracted by demo work in our house & only saw this post today. I hope you enjoyed Ocracoke. I've been going there every May for 28 years. The Island Inn is now closed & in serious disrepair. It's got a lot of history in addition to the ghost, so locals are really hoping for a buyer to restore it.

Lee Zacharias said...

Thank you, Angela. I've been distracted by demo work at my house & only saw this post today. (If only all the workmen could find the X that is causing the black mold.) The night Robert Atwan emailed to tell me I was being reprinted in The Best American Essays (having been listed in the Notables many times), he said I've been waiting to send this email for years, & all I could think to say in response, besides thank you, thrilled, etc., was "I've been waiting to receive this email for years."

Lee Zacharias said...

Thank you, Patricia. I have often needed encouragement myself & am so glad that I could offer some to you.

Lee Zacharias said...

Thank you, Margo. I would point out that one thing the bio leaves out is discouragement & rejections!

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