Here’s the thing, I suppose my problems with thirds and fractions in general began in the third grade. I think that was when we were first exposed to this concept that numbers were not always whole and that parts of things were still things but only partly. Fractions eluded me the way Quantum Physics eludes me. I am just on the fringe of understanding but I just don’t quite get it.
Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions was and still is a nightmare for me, although thankfully I have seldom needed to divide fractions in my adult life. Something simply goes haywire, short circuits when I try to compute what for many people is a simple mathematical equation. And I don’t know why. I am a reasonably intelligent woman. I’ve written ten novels for heaven’s sake and to this day I struggle with knowing whether one third is larger or smaller than one half.
If a recipe calls for one third of an ingredient it brings tears to my eyes—especially if I cannot locate the one-third measuring cup. I simply cannot make a guess because I don’t know where one third would fall in a one half measuring cup. And so I will not continue on with whatever it was I was attempting to cook or bake. That’s right, a whole day taken down by a third.
As a writer thirds are even more scary and confusing. Most instructors of writing will agree that plot can be divided into three neat parts. The beginning, the middle and the end. Heck, even Alice in Wonderland got this concept. But here’s the thing, in my mind I see that the novel has been fractioned off into thirds. However, unlike in the third grade, one-third of a novel is not equal in length to the other two thirds. WTH?
Check it out, the beginning might be a chapter long, nine or so pages the middle could be two hundred pages while the end comes in at around thirty or less. From my desk, thirds in writing are not equal but they are proportionate. Uhm.
Proportionate to the story, that is. The length of the beginning has to be just so, not too much, not too little, while the middle third is always much longer and more difficult to sustain and then of course after the climax it is a race to the finish. It seems people are comfortable with threes, not thirds, perhaps but threes. Bad news comes in threes, not thirds. When writing a novel it's best to have three bad things happens because any more will make your reader go insane, etc, etc. You cannot divide a dollar into three equal parts except in a virtual way because there is no such thing as a one-third penny coin. This unsettles me. Why do we even need thirds anyway. Who decided all of this. One-fourth I get. It's neat and equal. Thirds are not equal except to each other third.
So, what does all this mean? Well, I’m not sure. I was just thinking about my trouble with thirds this morning because I am fractionally disabled, an area of shame. Although as I was thinking about it and trying to separate the mathematical and the writerly realities of thirds it dawned on me that I was born to write. It was how I was wired and perhaps in the third grade (interesting my trouble with thirds began in third grade which is not one –third of the way through school) when I was crying over fractions I was really hard at work defending my creative life to come. Defending the notion that creativity, story, art, cannot be equally or easily divvied out and divided, that my one third was not equal to anyone else’s one-third. Art is messy. It’s hard to quantify and why would you want too.
Can you imagine writing a novel in three equal parts? I can’t. And so for all you creative types out there that struggle with fractions and numbers and perhaps how to tie your shoe laces (there’s a great TED talk about this very issue btw-shoe tying that is), I say press on. Let your thirds fall where they want to fall.As I tell my students--WRITE YOUR STORY THE WAY IT WANTS TO BE WRITTEN. Rules are for people who get thirds and quantum physics.