Meaning, Sense, and Clarity
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One of my teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Frank Conroy, created a model for how fiction should work, the famed “Conroy Pyramid” that looks like this:
It isn’t entirely important what’s on top; what matters most is the foundational elements that Conroy swore by: Meaning, Sense, and Clarity.
These were his Holy Trinity, the three guides to good writing. In his terms, if you focused on these three, just these, all the rest would take care of itself.
And full disclosure: doing just these three well is not easy. It’s more than enough for all and the best of us to handle.
And this is a big however. Many beginning writers start out their stories with big ideas. They have theses to prove, readers to convince of their intelligence, critics to impress. And… and they’ve drawn a lot of influence from the wonderful books they’ve read. Those books, for many writers, are what got them here–brought them to try writing in the first place.
But it’s a deadly recipe, this “top-down writing.”
The fact is, there’s a limit to how much even the best writers can control the top-level thinking, the ideas and themes of a piece.
Take the example of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway swore to the end that he wrote the book about a fishing expedition and a man just trying to bring in a fish. Readers the world over have floated theories of the story’s grand metaphors, it’s thematic and “literary” meanings. Perhaps it’s about these. Certainly many successful English papers have been written about it.
But first, before it could work on any of those levels, he really had to write it first and foremost, as a story about a man with a fish.
Then, and only then, if that works, then the rest of the interpretations can happen. The meaning, sense, and clarity of the story is: that a man goes out in the ocean and catches a big fish, but he has trouble bringing it all the way back in to shore. Ultimately he gets back, but mostly of the fish has been picked away by sharks and scavengers. It’s mostly skeleton now.
When I see the characters in student work doing things in the story’s setting, then I get a sense about what they desire, rather than have it explained to me as I read it.
If, as a writer, you focus on the higher level thematic stuff, it gets trickier to really know if your readers are going to dial in and catch what you’re putting across. The more you focus on theme, symbol, metaphor and the more importance you give these, the more you’re kind of setting yourself up for trouble.
Alternatively, if you let go of that thematic stuff and just focus on the crafts of delivering meaning, sense and clarity, you’ll steer toward great success.