For a while now, over at www.storygrid.com I’ve been writing about Malcolm
Gladwell and his first book The Tipping Point.
I’m doing something that I call “storygridding it.” And that’s just my short hand for creating a revealing infographic that a writer can look at lickety-split for inspiration.
And if she gets stuck writing her Big Idea nonfiction book, she can look deeply into the data of the story grid. And that data will reveal how a fellow scribe solved the same problem that she’s battling.
So say, you’re writing a thriller and you don’t know when to drop in the obligatory “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene. You can look at the Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs and see where Thomas Harris put his. Knowing that story masters face the same dilemmas you face and seeing exactly how they confronted and defeated those same problems is a cathartic experience.
What you discover is truth.
You discover that the problems driving you mad are just problems. Not your own deeply ingrained character defects. You discover the truth that with a little elbow grease and perseverance (and don’t tell anyone, but fun too), your writing problems can be solved.
If you can’t identity the problems though, (you can’t see them through the thousands of words that they hide behind) what happens is you lash out at the idiot who just can’t get anything right.
And you know who that is right?
It’s you, you think, the talentless, lazy fraud of a writer that is just kidding themselves that they could possible create a thriller that has any resemblance to The Silence of the Lambs.
I’m here to tell you that thinking is bullshit.
To be more specific, it’s Resistance. It’s a hugely powerful form of Resistance that every single pro faces too. I promise you that Thomas Harris stared down that bastard himself before, during and after he wrote The Silence of the Lambs. He’s still fighting him. Just like the rest of us.
What settles me is the knowledge that story grids ground us to the realities of the creative process—that there are systematic ways to take a brilliant idea with a lot of niggly problems deeply burrowed into it, like parasitic worms, and then one by one surgically remove them.
So that’s what story grids are all about…giving writers a practical blue-collar way to improve. No meditation or opening oneself up to the mysteries of the universe so that one can be a vessel for an otherworldly force required.
The Muse isn’t here to use you like a typewriter. She’s your cut man. And if you ain’t fighting hard, there are plenty of other mooks stepping in the ring for her to help. She’ll come back not when you’re ready to do the work, but when you’re actually doing the work, not before.
Story grids are fight plans, after action reports, Monday morning quarterbacking sessions. They’re Bobby Fisher’s queen sacrifice strategy from 1956, Bobby Orr’s textbook give and go goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup, the to-the-second planned quick strike Israeli Air Force bombing raid that launched the Six-Day War.
Story grids are the work plans behind the “magical” expressions of human genius. The stuff grinded over for 10,000 hours that allows the artist to forget all of it in that critical moment called Performance.
You don’t have to ask Joe Namath what he was thinking when he launched the 52 yard fourth quarter bomb to fellow New York Jet Don Maynard in the 1968 playoff game against the Oakland Raiders of find out what Bob Dylan had for breakfast the day he wrote It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) or find audio of United Farm Workers’ Cesar Chavez referencing the techniques of Edward Bernays when planning the use of Boycotts to effect change.
Chances are they’ll have no answer for you anyway. Or their answers will be unsatisfying, cliché, boring… They did all of the work before the performance, not during.
A diver doesn’t think about the training it took her to be able to execute the perfect tuck when she’s about to launch off the ten meter platform. She trusts the work, relaxes and let’s her muscle memory take over.
This is why we need translators. People who make it their mission to look at works of art in different ways, practical ways that make sense to artists in training. People who X-ray the work and detail how it’s put together.
This is what storygridding is about. It’s a way for people cranking out hour number 5,231 to learn from the craft underneath the work they admire. The things the journalist and writer Gladwell did to train his writing muscles before he wrote The Tipping Point. The stuff he forgets today that he did yesterday.
One of my favorite commenters over at www.storygrid.com put forth the idea that all of my analysis doesn’t mean much if I don’t interview and confirm all of my thoughts with Mr. Gladwell and his agent Tina Bennett. If I’m not able to get Gladwell and Bennett to confirm or deny how I propose they worked separately and together to create and market The Tipping Point to publishers, then my work will settle on the value line graph alongside the benefits of noxious gas emitted from anxious canines.
Here’s the thing. It’s been my experience that the artist’s methodology is his secret sauce. The way he cleans his desk. The kind of pencil he uses. The prayers of invocation before the work begins. And that’s the stuff they are loath to talk about. For good reason. For them and for us, they are magical. Let them be so.
The only thing they like to talk about less (or even remember or care to remember) is all of the bloody work they had to do before settling in to their profession. I’ve edited and published so many books by so many amazing performers who were as interested in talking about how they learned their craft as Tom Brady is talking about football inflation. They want to talk about the performance, of how it came out of them with grace and beauty. And that’s what most people want to read about too.
God knows we can’t bring back W.H. Auden and ask him about how he wrote “September 1, 1939.” We just have the work to consider. I put forth that the work is all we need. Auden, God bless him, was the corporal force that brought it forth, but the work is all that matters.
Good arguments right? But come on, why don’t I just make those calls and get the “truth?”
Alright then. Here’s the real reason why.
I’m not really writing about Malcolm Gladwell or Tina Bennett or Thomas Harris or any of the other characters that inhabit corporate book publishing.