jimvanpelt (jimvanpelt) wrote,
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The Two Bucket Theory of Language and Writing

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
Tags: teaching, writing
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