Creative Writing in Mathematics and Science (06w5091)

Arriving in Banff, Alberta Saturday, June 17 and departing Thursday June 22, 2006


Chandler Davis (University of Toronto)

The Writing & Publishing Department (The Banff Centre)

(Smith College)

Jan Zwicky (University of Victoria)



A casual glance at any literary journal suggests that creative writing workshops abound. But a closer examination of many journals finds none whose main goal is giving shape to particular content. The workshops in creative writing in mathematics and science at BIRS are devoted to giving literary shape to mathematical and scientific ideas.

BIRS, located in the renowned Banff Centre, is uniquely positioned to catalyze this embryonic field. Despite the popularity of a few recent books, films, and plays about mathematics and science (and/or mathematicians and scientists) -- A Beautiful Mind, Proof, Copenhagen, Good Will Hunting – most mathematicians and scientists who write creatively and writers who treat mathematical and scientific ideas in their work receive little encouragement, lack publication outlets, and work in isolation.

Encouraged by the BIRS website, we proposed and organized workshops in creative writing for 2003 and 2004. The first, with fifteen participants, was held August 30 - September 4. We knew of no precedent for this experiment, neither for bringing together mathematicians and scientists who write creatively and writers who write about mathematics and science, nor for a writing workshop without a leader, coach, or teacher. We assumed, correctly as it turned out, that the mix of fifteen accomplished and creative people with different backgrounds and working in different literary genres would coalesce in a productive workshop, and that the experience would show us how to improve the format for the second. However, faute de mieux (or d’épreuve), this first workshop's format was traditional (for mathematics workshops): most of the day was divided into time slots for presentation of individual work, with some time each day left free for writing (and one afternoon for hiking). Paul Hoffmann, a workshop participant and author of The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, gave a public lecture one evening on his just-published Wings of Madness.

In the second workshop (April 17 - 22, 2004), we retained the most successful features of the first while making improvements where they seemed indicated. We insisted, rather than suggested, that participants circulate their work in advance. And we insisted that it be work-in-progress, not work already published. We also structured the daily format to discourage lecture-like presentations and encourage response. Each day of the second workshop began with reflections on and responses to work presented the previous day. The rest of the morning was devoted to presentations and critiques of individual works-in-progress. Again the early afternoon was left free for writing but after tea we broke into small groups for more detailed discussion of particular pieces. The whole group gathered in the evenings for general discussions and for joint readings – an evening of poetry, an evening of prose -- with members of the parallel Banff “Writing with Style” workshop. The joint sessions were very successful. Each group gained an appreciation of the work of the other; some conversations continued at meals the next day. All valued the opportunity to read their work to and get responses from audiences outside their usual orbits. For more details, see our report in the current PIMS Magazine (Vol. 8, Issue 1, Fall 2004),

Both workshops encouraged and stimulated the participants and helped to create the kernel of a community. We found that mathematicians and scientists who write creatively and writers who write about mathematics and science do indeed have much to teach and learn from one another. The mix of literary genres was also productive. Some of us had set out to create fictional or biographical portraits of mathematicians’ lives and worries, in various genres; some of us were engaged in communicating mathematical ideas in ways bypassing the usual formalism; some of us had historical or philosophical commentary on mathematical activity and expression. In spite of these apparent differences, we recognized affinity in the objectives. A philosopher poet helped a fiction writer find a better way to tell the end of his story. A mathematician non-fiction writer helped a dramatist extend the ideas of her play, ideas a filmmaker sitting in on their discussions recast in doggerel form. A novelist had insightful comments on poetry.

The 2006 Workshop

This third workshops daily schedule will resemble that of the second. We will hold at least one evening of readings open to the public and in cooperation with the Banff Centre. On other evenings, we will hold group discussions. (We plan to circulate a recommended reading list in advance of the workshop to facilitate these.) In particular, we hope to explore common wellsprings of mathematical and literary creativity, a subject that provoked interest at previous workshops but which has not yet received focused attention. We also plan to offer at least one session on how to find appropriate writing groups, agents, and publishers.

We request a half workshop because we agreed, in a wrap-up/review at the end of the second, that twenty is the optimal size for a group depending so strongly on constructive criticism among its members. We will work closely with the Banff Writing and Publishing Program on the workshops format and activities, and in inviting and selecting participants.

The Anthology

The first, and to our knowledge still the only, anthology of creative writing in mathematics is Fantasia Mathematica, a collection of short stories, humorous essays, and light verse compiled and edited by Clifton Fadiman half a century ago. The authors ranged from Plato (Socrates and the Slave) to Andrew Marvell (Mathematical Love) to Aldous Huxley (Young Archimedes) and Robert A. Heinlein (-- And He Built a Crooked House). With the exceptions of Lewis Carroll and Martin Gardner, none was or is a mathematician.

We are planning a very different anthology. All of the work will be contemporary, and mathematicians and scientists will be well represented. We plan to include stories, short plays, poems, and creative nonfiction, much (or even all) of it inspired by or polished in the BIRS workshop series. We will start on this project soon after the 2006 workshop ends and hope to complete it within a year.