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Alexis von Konigslow on vocabulary lessons

As writer, I struggle with this closeness of thought and these choices of words. My first novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, features a mathematician. I wanted to give the reader insight into her thoughts – specifically, into how her training impacted her situation. I wanted to make her vivid, and to make her experience of math striking and real. The problem was that very few of our thoughts contain so-called “eureka moments.” Much of my protagonist’s thinking, as she worked through her project, would realistically have been quite technical. I also remembered my undergrad experience: when people don’t think about calculus for entire days, it means that they probably don’t want to. My readers don’t necessarily think about calculus. I want to hold readers close, but I want it to be a pleasant, or at least interesting, experience.

This, of course, is a concern that generalizes. The National Science Foundation estimates that people have between 12,000 and 50,000 thoughts per hour. Narrating them all in a novel would tend to slow down the story. Consider, also, the nature of thoughts themselves. So many of them are strange, disconnected, likely boring to outsiders, and rarely adhere to a narrative arc. We pick and choose. Even as we think them, we innately know that some thoughts are more important than others. We choose which thoughts to act on, even which thoughts to consciously notice, and which to just discard as so much mental background noise.

We pick and choose in an even more extreme way when we’re remembering or thinking back. We just don’t have the brain capacity to record it all. So we sift, fill in the blanks, probably edit too, while we’re at it. It makes sense that writers have to do the same when they’re constructing a character’s interior world. Some of the messiness should remain, of course, but just a little bit. And there are ways to hint at all those thoughts. I think that word choice plays a part.

As I was writing The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, I had an escape hatch. My protagonist was more interested in her family history, a side project, than in the math. I didn’t have to write about the calculations and statistics, because she wasn’t interested in these at the time of the story. But I’m currently working on a second novel, and in this case, I don’t have that kind of cheat: physics drives the story, and is sometimes – often – the reason for the tension. The characters’ thoughts tend more to the scientific, and the problems that they’re working through involve history and emotions, yes, but also theory. Still, I’m careful to pick and choose. I sift. I won’t sift away too much, however. I’ll also trust the story, and trust the reader.