Solving the Problem of Problem-Solving
By Ellis Weiner, for The Children’s Book Review
Published: September 11, 2012
I’ve just finished writing the second Templeton Twins book, and it’s dawning on me that I am, apparently, interested in problem-solving. Who knew? But Book I and Book II spend a lot of time, not only having the Twins solve problems, but in walking them, and the reader, through the step-by-step process of either how they think about those problems, or how they literally solve them, or both.
Now that you mention it, I think I can blame credit two people for this tendency in me: my high school physics teacher, Mr. Donald Kelbaugh, and the Russo-American author Mr. Vladimir Nabokov.
From Mr. Kelbaugh I learned, almost in spite of myself, the the methodical approach of physics and, for that matter, all of science: that the way to solve a problem is to define it clearly, break it down into its constituent elements—there is a scene in Twins II where the Twins divide up the task of solving a problem by assigning Abigail the job of going over “what we know” and John the job of thinking about “what we don’t know”—and then devising procedures to obtain specific answers to those various questions.
I know: Duh. But it’s only “duh” in retrospect, once you realize that’s what must be done, as opposed to flinging yourself against the totality of a problem and thrashing around in the hopes that it will get solved.
From Nabokov, and especially his Lectures on Literature, I learned—or, at least, became brainwashed into believing in—the importance of specificity. Don’t just say, “Tom saw the dog.” Decide, and report, what kind of dog Tom saw—unless, that is, withholding that information is itself deliberate and important.
That’s why, when I wrote about how the Twins, in Book I, devise a gimmick to place before their father a photo of the kind of dog they want, I had to ask myself, “Is it plausible to think that there would be a single overhead lighting fixture in the kitchen?” I decided it was, because they lived in an old house, and it seemed to me I had been in older kitchens with exactly that kind of (dreary, depressing) overhead lamp.
This sort of concern can, of course, be a pain in the neck. The reader (who is, say, eleven years old) doesn’t care about the history of small-town kitchen illumination. Neither, for that matter, does the writer. (The Narrator may say he does, but you know how he is. He’ll say anything to irritate me.) But by playing fair with the details, you achieve at least three things: You force yourself to more fully imagine the scene, which helps make the writing better. You assist the reader in seeing the scene, which helps make the reading better. And you open yourself up to thinking about things, which otherwise would never have occurred to you, that might change and therefore improve the scene.
Put them both together—the methodical examination of a problem; the need to cite specifics in a scene—and they equal problem-solving. And remember, I’ve never seen a single episode of McGuyver in spite of the fact that two of my best friends went to college with the guy who played him! Really!
It is these two concerns that come together every time the Twins get out of a scrape. I can only hope that the reader finds these scenes (consciously or not) to be an unexpected change from problem-solving-via-Latin-incantation-and-wand-waving (which I have nothing against). I even think there may be something physically satisfying in those sequences.
Let me know, you eleven-year-olds, if that’s the case.
Note from Narrator
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