Alexander Grothendieck (1928-2014) was one of the most important mathematicians of the twentieth century. When Fermat’s Last Theorem was finally solved in 1994, it was only because of what Grothendieck had discovered about algebraic geometry.
But he was not just a numbers guy. Like many mathematicians, he was primarily a problem-solver. He loved it. Not only that, he understood it on a more fundamental level than most people ever do.
According to Rivka Galchen’s fascinating profile, Grothendieck compared problem-solving to dealing with a hard nut:
You could open it with sharp tools and a hammer, but that was not his way. He said that it was better to put the nut in liquid, to let it soak, even to walk away from it, until eventually it opened. He also spoke of “the rising sea.” One way to think of this: there’s a rocky and difficult shore, which you must somehow get your boat across. There may be a variety of ingenious engineering feats that can respond to this challenge. But another solution is to wait for the sea to rise, providing a smooth surface to cross effortlessly…
Think of this the next time you come up against a seemingly unsolvable problem in your writing. Paragraph isn’t gelling or the plot isn’t making sense? Walk away for a bit. Come back and work at it but just a little. Don’t think you can solve the problem in one big go.
Wait for the sea to rise and the answer will present itself.