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I came up with a new analogy for writing today as I talked to my honors freshmen about their practice college entrance essays.  It's the Two Bucket Theory of Language and Writing.

In the first bucket is all the stuff that life is about, that makes life interesting and worth paying attention to: love, liberty, friendship, perseverance, hope, faith, democracy, etc.  It also has all the things we fear: death, tragedy, despair, anxiety, etc.

In the second bucket are all the things we can touch, taste, smell, hear and feel: the oak tree that grows by the porch, the '67 VW Bug you learned to drive in, the first chapter book you read when you were eight, etc.

The secret to answering the college entrance questions, which are always about first bucket items, is to use stuff from the second bucket.  You can't write convincingly, uniquely or interestingly about first bucket items with first bucket language.  You can't reveal yourself as a person or introduce yourself to the college from the first bucket, at least not in a specific way.

For example, one of the college essay prompts we saw was this old chestnut:  "Write about someone who was influential in your life, and describe what qualities that person demonstrates that you admire."

A first bucket response might start, "My father is influential in my life because he is amazingly determined.  His willingness to apply himself with strength and focus to any of life's challenges has shaped me into the goal-centered person I am today."  The essay would continue in much this vein for another two hundred words or so.  Over half of the rough drafts I looked at sounded somewhat like this essay.  Look at all the first bucket language: influence, determination, willingness, strength, focus, challenges, and goals. 

A second bucket writer knows that the important first bucket concept can best be illustrated by using second bucket language, like, "Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blue-black cold,then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze."  (apologies to the poet Robert Hayden, who I lifted this passage from).

I realized as I was talking to my 10th graders that the first bucket second bucket analogy applied to some fiction I read in workshops or in slush piles.  Some fiction is unsuccessful to me because it is all second bucket language, filled with things I can see, hear, touch, taste and smell, but the story isn't about anything from the first bucket.  

The stories fail because they don't draw from the first bucket; the story isn't about anything that makes life interesting and worth paying attention to

Comments

( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
toddtcastillo
May. 4th, 2010 06:11 am (UTC)
Interesting
That's an interesting way of putting it; especially helpful in essay writing.

And the reversal is also true, as you put it in regards to fiction. I always try distinguishing the stories that work from those that don't (both my own, and others).

Like you said, good stories are the ones that draw from both buckets. But I never thought of them as buckets--yet I always thought of two individual broad elements that make stories work. I knew the first element (or bucket), about universal emotions and themes, but I'll be damned if I could figure out the second. Plot? Characters? Style?

"Theory of Language and Writing" puts it perfectly.

That was a very illuminating post. Thank you for sharing it.
jimvanpelt
May. 4th, 2010 11:47 am (UTC)
Re: Interesting
You're welcome. The students understood it better than my earlier attempts to discriminate between abstract and concrete language.
marycatelli
May. 4th, 2010 03:40 pm (UTC)
Re: Interesting
By putting it in metaphor, you have made it more concrete, less abstract.

0:)
jimvanpelt
May. 4th, 2010 04:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Interesting
LOL! I hadn't thought of it that way.
jongibbs
May. 4th, 2010 11:43 am (UTC)
Interesting post.

I really like that two bucket explanation.

Thanks for sharing :)
jimvanpelt
May. 4th, 2010 11:47 am (UTC)
You're welcome!
paulwoodlin
May. 4th, 2010 12:41 pm (UTC)
One guess as to what I'll be talking to my writing students about next week. lol
affinity8
May. 4th, 2010 01:09 pm (UTC)
I like it - nice theory!

Is there a third bucket of tools such as grammar, spelling, etc?
marycatelli
May. 4th, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC)
Nah, that's the dipper you use to get them out. Grammar, spelling, style, etc. are the tools you use to express the abstract themes vividly and concretely.
wyld_dandelyon
May. 8th, 2010 04:37 pm (UTC)
yes, this!
_standback_
May. 4th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
Liked this description a lot - it rings very true to me...

Forwarded on to my friends list...
barbarienne
May. 4th, 2010 01:48 pm (UTC)
I think I just as often see stories fail for the opposite reason: too much first bucket, not enough second bucket.

It's a question of proportion and application. When a scene is happening, there needs to be more second-bucket, more concrete nouns and verbs. During the denoument/bridge/whateveryoucallit between scenes, you can do more of the abstract nouns and verbs (first-bucket stuff).

The trick, of course, is getting the reader to understand while they're reading the scene, why it's of importance. I think every writer does this a little differently, and precisely how the writer does it makes the difference in their voice/style/etc.
amy34
May. 4th, 2010 04:34 pm (UTC)
Neat post. That makes a lot of sense.
seanwilliams
May. 5th, 2010 10:49 pm (UTC)
That's a terrific post. (Can't help thinking of walruses, though.)
bogwitch64
May. 7th, 2010 05:21 pm (UTC)
I am sending this to my college-freshman daughter. Awesome insight, and so user-friendly. Thanks!
(here via jongibbs)
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )