When I used to teach writing to businesses, I would focus a lot on the “bottom line” – and, though I was teaching accountants, I didn’t mean the budgetary one. I meant the bottom line thought, the overall big thing they were trying to get across to the audience for their work. It’s remarkable how simple and yet important this concept is, because although life is made of the details, we can’t store them that way. So we group things, and the things we like to group best are ideas. When you read, you tend to unconsciously look for ways to put details in baskets. To teach this concept, I liked to play a game with my students, whether they were high schoolers or consultants. Here’s how it goes:
Sink, refrigerator, table, oven . . . what’s the bigger idea? Kitchen. Easy to see when you do it with concrete items. Now how about this one: beauty, truth, wisdom, altruism . . . what’s the bigger idea? It’s a little harder here, since these are ideas, rather than things. The bigger idea, though, is ideals. Getting the hang of it?
Young kids tend to start out learning this by its opposite. Anyone who’s seen Sesame Street is probably familiar with the “one of these things is not like the other” game. (I can hear the song in my head right now.) In that game, kids see four items in a group, and one is different. Big Bird, for example, has three small bowls of bird seed, and one huge one. Cookie Monster has four plates of cookies, but one has more than the others. Some studies have shown that even in infancy, kids can spot these differences. http://www.economist.com/node/12847128 It’s not a huge leap from there to group the things that are the same – and that, I think, is the beginning of abstract thinking.
This works well when you’re writing for work or school, but the interesting thing to me lately is how this basket-bottom-line idea is turned on its head when you’re writing a novel. There, while you may be aware of the larger idea, call it the theme, you don’t generally build from it. Instead, you start with a voice, a character, a detail, and let it grow. And still, it grows to something bigger, something that ultimately will be a bottom line, at least symbolically. So I guess the novelist is more like the person going out and picking berries, one after the other. In the end, it makes a pie, or jam. But you don’t get there without picking each juicy piece off the bush and putting it into the basket.