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Writing as a “Math Person”

The lights of the theater dimmed, the audience quieted, and all I could think was, Is this really a good idea?

From a young age, I’d believed I was destined for a different kind of performance. I was to pursue math and engineering, just like my dad and grandfather. I completed countless math workbooks, excelled in all of my math classes, and relished any chance to play what we called “the game of two numbers.”

In the car, my dad would give my brother, my sister, and me a math problem. He’d say, for instance,

Carlos shares his inspiration for this post.

“I’m thinking of two numbers that add to twelve and multiply to thirty-two.” My siblings and I would then rush to be the first to shout, “Eight and four!” I didn’t know it at age seven, but my dad was already preparing us for polynomial factorization and other skills we would encounter in our inevitable paths to illustrious careers in STEM. Sure enough, I went on to earn an electrical engineering degree from MIT and began working as a hardware engineer, designing and testing telecommunications equipment.

But here I was, at age twenty-seven, backstage at Improv Boston, about to perform a sketch comedy show I’d co-written and produced. Three years later, I would quit my electrical engineering job to pursue writing and teaching full time. I had found a fascinating new problem.

A stage is the engineering laboratory of the comedy world. A comedian tests their hypotheses by observing whether the audience laughs or not ... and the outcome can feel as probabilistic as, say, quantum mechanics.

A stage is the engineering laboratory of the comedy world. Instead of wielding oscilloscopes and spectrum analyzers, a comedian tests their hypotheses by observing whether the audience laughs or not. And provoking said laughter depends on everything from the timing of the delivery to the makeup of the audience — often feeling as probabilistic as, say, quantum mechanics. This uncertainty gives rise to a frenetic energy in the final minutes leading up to a show. Then there’s the moment of silence between the crowd quieting and the curtain rising. It is at this point that your hypothesis feels the weakest. When your brain tells you that nobody in their right mind would go out there and actually try to make a group of total strangers laugh. The only thing you can do in that moment is force yourself to walk onto the stage, to cross the silent bridge, and perform.

Comedy, and writing in general, is about forming a connection with another person — a daunting task for some writers. Whether you’re part of a sketch group performing in front of a crowd or a high school student writing an essay that will be read by a college admissions officer, sharing your writing with another person is an act of courage. But I can say from experience that all of us, even a so-called math person like myself, can develop the skills and, more importantly, the self-assurance to share stories that resonate deeply with their intended audience. The more I performed, the more I was able to gather feedback, incorporate what I had learned into future shows, and gradually improve, feeling more certain of a positive outcome each time I stepped on stage.   

Performing as part of a group has one distinct advantage over working as a solo writer. Backstage, before every show, our sketch group would gather in a circle for a very different game of numbers. In unison, we’d wave our left hand around while counting down “8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.” Then our right hand — “8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.” Left foot. Right foot. And we would repeat this, counting down from 7, then 6, then 5, going more and more quickly until we were all flailing madly, shouting, “2-1! 2-1! 2-1! 2-1! 1-1-1-1!” It was a way to come together and help each other brush aside our nerves, as if to say, “We all know that what we’re about to do is challenging, but we’ve got this, right?” 

It can be difficult for the writer working alone to cross that bridge of silence — to take the leap of faith required to form a connection with another human being, not knowing exactly how they will react. I love helping people cross that bridge confidently, so that, in those moments between crafting a story and sending it into the void, the writer is able to whisper, calmly, “I’ve got this.”

Carlos is a Hillside coach.

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