From Sarah, With Joy

Writer querying two novels and some other word babies. I tend to effervesce.

New post every Monday

Monday, September 19, 2011

Vertical Movement and the Pyramid of Abstraction

How many of you have heard of the Pyramid of Abstraction?

To me, this provides a great mental image of good writing. The base of your writing, the support, the majority, is specific, concrete detail. That's where the real connection happens, the true understanding.

Once you have these details, though, then something more needs to happen, something I call vertical movement, because in a way it is movement up the pyramid. You don't even need to get into abstractions, but somehow things need to be tied together in a way that gives the piece a connection to something more universal, or larger than itself. I'm going to use poetry as an example, but I think this applies to all kinds of writing.

A Spiral Notebook
by Ted Kooser

The bright wire rolls like a porpoise
in and out of the calm blue sea
of the cover, or perhaps like a sleeper
twisting in and out of his dreams,
for it could hold a record of dreams
if you wanted to buy it for that
though it seems to be meant for
more serious work, with its
college-ruled lines and its cover
that states in emphatic white letters,
5 SUBJECT NOTEBOOK. It seems
a part of growing old is no longer
to have five subjects, each
demanding an equal share of attention,
set apart by brown cardboard dividers,
but instead to stand in a drugstore
and hang on to one subject
a little too long, like this notebook
you weigh in your hands, passing
your fingers over its surfaces
as if it were some kind of wonder.


Amazing, beautiful detail. I love all the metaphors with the spiral wire. That is the biggest part of this piece. But do you see where it goes vertical? I would say its the lines "but instead to stand in a drugstore and hang on to one subject a little too long." It starts talking about something much, much more than just a spiral bound notebook, even though that's what its technically talking about. But it becomes more symbolic, more universal. Slightly more abstract, but you'll notice he's still using concrete, specific language.

Next example.

Break of Day
by Galway Kinnel

He turns the light on, lights
the cigarette, goes out on the porch,
chainsaws a block of green wood down the grain,
chucks the pieces into the box stove,
pours in kerosene, tosses in the match
he has set fire to the next cigarette with,
stands back while the creosote-lined, sheet-
metal rust-lengths shudder but just barely
manage to direct the cawhoosh in the stove—
which sucks in ash motes through gaps
at the bottom and glares out fire blaze
through overburn-cracks at the top—
all the way to the roof and up out through into
the still starry sky starting to lighten,
sits down to a bowl of crackers and bluish milk
in which reflections of a 40-watt ceiling bulb
appear and disappear, eats, contemplates
an atmosphere containing kerosene stink,
chainsaw smoke, chainsmoke, wood smoke, wood heat,
gleams of the 40-watt ceiling bulb bobbing in blue milk.


Again, amazing detail. This one is a little trickier to find where it goes vertical, but I would say its the line "appear and disappear, eats, contemplates an atmosphere containing kerosene stink, etc...". That is where it starts meaning more than its actually saying. Its not just describing things anymore, it mentions so subtly the way this man feels about all the things its just described, and it doesn't even go into how the man feels about his life of all these things because we've already gotten such a strong sensation of our own from all the concrete details that it doesn't need to. If he started saying, "the man was disenchanted with the kerosene stink..." that would be a gross oversimplification. Maybe that's it, but maybe it's comfortable, or it's exciting, or its whatever. Its could be any or all of them, and that's the point. Vertical expands the poem to mean more than its actually saying, but it still lets the reader find much of their own meaning.

What do you think? I hope I'm making sense here. It's ironic trying to describe an abstract principle of not being abstract. To me, though, this is one of the key principles that once people get, it takes their writing a gigantic leap forward. Then its a matter of figuring out how to do this and do it effectively, which is a much more painstaking, never ending process. If you start with that strong, concrete base, and just keep going, the vertical almost takes care of itself. You'll find the places where its starting to mean more, and you can go from there. Then you'll have something that just blows peoples minds.

Sarah Allen

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