Three Feathers and the ladder of abstraction

If you like good storytelling, watch for my colleague Dan D’Ambrosio‘s byline in the Burlington Free Press. Dan writes stories that are solid and worthwhile, and I’ve learned a lot working next to him.

Dan D’Ambrosio’s most recent Sunday cover story was called “Three Feathers and the company that saved him,” about a man who spent more than 28 years in prison, found work at a local soap factory, and now faces the end of his life.

I noticed that the article’s a good example of the ladder of abstraction, a concept I first encountered in Roy Peter Clark’s book Writing Tools.

It’s a story about big words like redemption, hope, tragedy, social good. The story has a soul.

But the writer tells it through plenty of concrete details that keep the story from becoming saccharine. The story has a body.

Consider the opening:

Peter Asch, co-owner of soap manufacturer Twincraft Skincare in Winooski, hires people no one else will.

Perhaps the best example is a Blackfoot man named Three Feathers, the former Arthur Beshaw of South Burlington. He was released from prison nine years ago after more than 28 years in state and federal penitentiaries from Virginia to Indiana. Beshaw took his Native American name — the only name he acknowledges — while in prison.

Back in Vermont after his release, Three Feathers applied to 43 companies for any kind of work. Only Twincraft responded.

“I’m going to be real honest with you, dude,” Three Feathers said. “Had I been an employer, I wouldn’t have hired me. Too much of a risk.”

That’s a lede that starts out pretty high on the ladder, but by the time you get to the first quote, you’re encountering a real story in a specific voice (“dude”).

Then back to ideals and public policy:

Why did Twincraft take that risk? Asch cites the societal benefits, for one.

“Incarceration costs $60,000 to $70,000 annually for maximum security,” he said. “Not only is Twincraft paying somebody who’s paying taxes into the system, but another human being is being given meaning in their life. It’s kind of hard to have meaning when you’re in prison.”

The writer continues this dynamic pattern through the story, raising you up and lowering you to the ground again. We don’t get stuck in the middle.

“We all have our own story, and whatever our story might be, I believe we want to give people a second chance,” Asch said. “And the truth is, when you don’t open your door, when you don’t give people a second chance, you are writing them off for life. It’s profound.”

When Twincraft opened its doors to Three Feathers, the company embraced a man who had made big mistakes. He had committed multiple felonies, including robbery and aggravated assault, and escaped from various prisons, on his way to spending nearly three decades behind bars.

Midway through the article you have a glimpse of Three Feathers surrounded by machines to ease his COPD, and you hear how he came to Twincraft, the soap company.

The article allows Three Feathers to tell much of his story in his own words, without editorial moralizing.

It all comes together in this ending, which, in my opinion, perfectly marries The Big Idea with the human story:

When Three Feathers was still running the soap lines at Twincraft, Peter Asch would stop frequently to visit with him. One day, Asch said, Three Feathers, an inveterate joker, got quite serious and said: “You saved my life.”

Asch asked what he meant. Three Feathers told him that without a job, which only Twincraft offered, he would have returned to prison, where he would have killed himself.

“That was a fairly profound thing to say and profound thing to hear, and it deeply legitimized the culture of the business,” Asch said. “Frankly, from my perspective as an owner of the company, it gives me great meaning. We’re doing something healthy, we’re doing something positive, and this is where it’s not all about the bottom line.”

He paused for a minute, and then added:

“Although hiring Three Feathers probably helped the bottom line, so it’s complicated.”

Here’s where the ladder of abstraction hit me: An abstract idea— saving a life— tied to literal circumstances. The final quote sends you down the ladder of abstraction, from “the culture of the business” and “great meaning” … to “the bottom line” and the man Three Feathers.

It’s a fantastic piece of writing, and you should read the whole thing.

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