Of funnels and ladders

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Last night in class, I drew a funnel and a ladder on a blackboard. You remember blackboards, don’t you? Most have been replaced by cheaper whiteboards, but they’re a poor substitute.

The gritty drag of a chalk stick against smooth slate — the sound of writing with its taps and scratches — those are the sense memories of learning. A wet marker sliding on an dry erase plastic surface lacks the tactile quality that chalk and board possess.

When I walked into the classroom and saw that dark expanse of slate, I decided to draw part of my lesson. Below the chalkboard, a metal ledge with a narrow lip held white sticks at fat as my fingers, some stubby, others long, all lying in a bed of chalk dust.

For centuries, to read meant viewing black type on white paper, to write meant scratching graphite or ink onto a white page. The blackboard stands in diametrical opposition, the contrast of white against black a reversal of the printed page. Another delightful contrast: those fat velvety felt erasers. Gliding across the hard surface, they soften sharp mistakes into indistinct smudges. So iconic, those blackboard erasers.

By all rights, the Urban Dictionary definition of  “old school” should include blackboard, chalk, and eraser.

I’ve been teaching a class based on the book Telling True Stories, and in keeping with last night’s lesson, I drew the aforementioned funnel and a ladder. The former was derived from Cynthia Gorney’s essay “From Story Idea to Published Story” (p. 55),  and the latter (how could I resist?) from Roy Peter Clark’s “The Ladder of Abstraction” (p. 70).

Gorney writes:

Think of the story idea as a funnel. You start with an unformed, fuzzy idea, throw it into a funnel, and out comes a focused, purposeful story. That’s the idea anyway. It takes practice.

According to Clark:

S.I. Hayakawa…best described this concept….[A]ll language exists on a ladder. The most general or abstract language and ideas are at the top of the ladder. The most concrete, specific words are at the bottom of the ladder.

In storytelling, we create meaning at the top of the ladder and exemplify that meaning at the bottom of the ladder….Writing at the top of the ladder is telling, presenting a summary. Writing at the bottom of the ladder is showing, presenting detail….When you include detail in a well-crafted narrative, it leads the reader up the ladder, in his or her own mind, to derive meaning from the story.

I’ve always appreciated instructors who use visual images to impart key concepts in writing. In the case of Gorney and Clark, the two images pair well. You have to climb the ladder of abstraction to develop and refine ideas to throw into the funnel. (Ideally, a sieve should be employed at some point in the process to separate out the weaker, less solid ideas, but I haven’t found that essay just yet.)

To get my adult students to write at the bottom of the ladder while keeping their eyes aimed at the top, I handed out folded slips of paper bearing emotions they had to convey in a short bit of writing. I asked them to avoid summary and editorializing, but instead let the details and circumstances express the mood.

For the word tender-hearted, a student developed a first-person narrative that opened with dialogue between a mother and daughter in a car and ended with the narrator reflecting on her child’s desire to help a particular homeless man she sees every day on her ride to school.

For the word deadened, another student used third-person to describe the signs of spring outside a window: birdsong, new leaves and blossoms. Inside, an affectionate pet rubbed up against its owner, yet the woman neither responded to the season nor the animal, barely touching her cat as she stared unseeing out the window.

For the word covetous, a third student used interior monologue. The narrator observed another woman’s close relationships with her adult sons, and remarked on how their love and support sustained her through the loss of her husband of many years. She (the student) kept the voice contained with just enough desire expressed, but not so much that the narrator tipped toward those darker shades of envy and jealousy.

I was impressed at how each found the right voice, technique and approach to convey their words, and did so with careful, precise description. Their details were specific and rooted in their own experiences.

Detail in writing is everything. If you can describe it well enough that others see it, they will more readily enter your world. That’s half the battle.

Sometimes, though, the picture worth a thousand words is a sure shortcut to success. After drawing that funnel and ladder on the chalkboard, I read the related passages aloud. Some students followed along on the printed page or on a tablet, while others listened.

The readings were near the top of the ladder, but the chalkboard images were at the bottom. It seems to have worked. Everybody who shared their work wrote at the bottom.

If there had been a whiteboard in the classroom, I wouldn’t have done those drawings. And in presenting those reasons within the first four paragraphs, I tried to write at the bottom of the ladder.

Did it work? Can you guess what word might have been written on the slip of paper that I mentally handed out to myself?

Credibility is in the details. That’s what makes a story effective, whether you’re writing fiction or creative non-fiction. When in doubt, get outside your head and start with detail.

So today’s lesson is this: Enter every room with an eye alert for detail, and respond to that detail as a writer, a teacher, a student, or an observer, depending on your mood. Or consider it from all sides, climb it up the ladder, drop it down the funnel and see what comes out.  Good stuff in, good stuff out.

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