For a while now, over at I’ve been writing about Malcolm

September 1, 1939

September 1, 1939

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 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.


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  1. Mary Doyle on October 2, 2015 at 6:08 am

    Good for you Shawn! There’s no quantifying that “secret sauce” but it’s as true as the sun rising outside my window as I read this post. As always, thanks!

  2. Patrick Maher on October 2, 2015 at 6:29 am

    ” the artist’s methodology is his secret sauce” – plausible, but still conjecture. It is at least possible to try, and only then print a denial stating how the artist refused his or her secret sauce recipe.
    Damn, this is good stuff though.

    • Patrick Maher on October 2, 2015 at 6:31 am

      “God knows we can’t bring back W.H. Auden and ask him about how he wrote “September 1, 1939.”
      But Gladwell is alive. You can ask him.

      • Joel D Canfield on October 2, 2015 at 9:26 am

        And yet, often as you bring it up, I just don’t see the point.

        What would we gain by, say, asking Dylan anything at all about the process which led to To Make You Feel My Love? Even if he had fMRIs of the whole process, what do we gain?

        Compared to putting in our own long hours and blood and ink-stains, not much.

        • Mary Doyle on October 2, 2015 at 1:51 pm

          Thanks for saying this better than I could have Joel…

      • Debbie L Kasman on October 3, 2015 at 4:14 am

        It’s not really about Gladwell. Stay with the program, Patrick. You said it yourself, “Damn, this is good stuff…”

    • Alec Graf on October 2, 2015 at 10:08 am

      Odd, I was laying awake last night thinking about your comment on, Patrick. And then this post appears….

      Seems to me Shawn isn’t giving us bio — aka truth, little t, properly crossed by a little i properly dotted. He’s after his own Big Idea here, or Truth. And Truth plunges out of Story, the crazy could have beens and way out ought to bes, as opposed to yawing around all our sublunary ises.

      True, you start with some semblance of what is, but then you filter that through your own experience, removing the noise, breaking it down into its most representative parts, disassembling it until you have, in effect, a dissemblance. It’s that dissemblance that makes the Socrates of the world bluster about, trying to stuff it back where it came from, since it bypasses all their properly crossed truths.

      Thing is, though, Story is what drives us, making us do the things we do. And if it’s important enough what we do, then maybe someday somebody will write a little truth about us, call it a bio and probably even put a chicken in the pot. But if they do, they better get at our driving Truth, else it’s all a bunch of bulldog fart, to borrow your own apt phrase….

      Ah well, maybe I’m all wet here — am just swamping with the bullfrogs. Maybe Shawn does just have a bad case of indigestion he didn’t know what better to do with. We’ll each have to decide the truth — or Truth — of that for ourselves….

  3. Carl Blackburn on October 2, 2015 at 6:34 am

    From someone who is slugging it out with “resistance” every day, thank you seems somehow inadequate.

  4. Lynne Favreau on October 2, 2015 at 7:09 am

    I don’t want to see the wizard behind the curtain-I just want to believe I can perform magic too. Storygrid is doing that for me.

    • Madeleine D'Este on October 3, 2015 at 3:08 am

      Talking of wizards, I’ve been reading a series by this struggling writer called JK Rowling. After becoming a big fan of Shawn’s work, I can see the signposts of The Story Grid all the way through it.

  5. Beth Barany on October 2, 2015 at 8:08 am

    Love this. Have shared it 3 times. On the muse: “She’ll come back not when you’re ready to do the work, but when you’re actually doing the work, not before.” That’s all that matters to me. How Gladwell did it is how we all do it: show up and do the work. Thanks Shawn!

  6. Dora Sislian Themelis on October 2, 2015 at 8:49 am

    I lost it when I read the word “mook,” it’s a word my father would use. I liked your tone of swagger and I had to re-read the article with it in mind. I needed a little swagger since Resistance keeps beating me up, so thanks for that.

    • Alec Graf on October 2, 2015 at 9:26 am

      Funny, I read “monk”…. Monkish mooks, then…

  7. Marvin Waschke on October 2, 2015 at 10:17 am

    My son taught me something when he was about 12 years old. He played baseball and he wanted to become a catcher. I was never much good at sports and I wanted to give him the opportunity to experience the pleasure that I saw others had when playing. We tossed the ball every opportunity I could find– there weren’t many because I was at the office late most days and weekends– but we got in some time. I kept repeating to him the instructions his coach had given him on stance and moves. One day he said, “During a game, I have to forget that stuff, or I can’t play.”

    That stuck with me. For a performance like a baseball game or writing a book, you can’t do it until you can forget all the rules and methods you have learned and just play. I think that has something to do with artists who can’t tell you how they do it, only how the learned it.

  8. Julie Gabrielli on October 2, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    We had the same imaginative challenge in architecture school when analyzing great buildings from history to learn timeless principles from them. It’s simply more fun to look and look and study and speculate, than to interview a living architect for tips on his process. You learn as much about yourself as you do about the building — and isn’t that what we, as writers, are trying to do? Develop our own innate abilities by drawing from as many good sources as we can?

  9. David Kaufmann on October 3, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    Imho, one of the best posts you’ve done, Shawn. Thanks.

  10. Pat Lange on October 5, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    Hello Shawn, what a wonderful article. Tons of information, oodles of inspiration.

    As for myself, you pretty much nailed it. You covered a bit of everything as it pertains to the creative process, as well as, captured the best of both. Both, meaning the work (without which none of us would ever get anything accomplished or more proficient at)and those, “magical” flashes of brilliance we all aspire to within our work.

    I guess what we need to remember is whether we’re a painter, a poet, a writer, or a pipe fitter, this process, while certainly creative and even magical at times, is first and foremost a learning process, one which requires a good share of time and effort on our part.

    I mean think about it, even a magician has to hone his craft.

  11. Susanne on October 9, 2015 at 6:25 am

    Many many thanks Shawn.

    I want to build the brick wall myself. You’re giving me the bricklayer’s tools. I can watch someone build the wall fifty times, but until I do it myself, it won’t sink in.

    Off to build some walls…a few have toppled over already, and the StoryGrid is helping me understand why that happened.

  12. David Thompson on October 16, 2015 at 5:42 am

    This exchange reminds me of something I read many years ago concerning experts. The setting was the development of AI (artificial intelligence) systems that would either support or supplant the work experts do, specifically in technical fields.

    The developers of the systems finally abandoned the “interview the expert” for the purpose of extracting from the expert how they did what they did. The experts couldn’t articulate their process in any repeatable fashion. It was innate. They could describe all the steps they followed to get from problem identification to problem solution, but that process was not necessarily transferable to any algorithm.

    The point was that the experts were expert because of the combination of training and experience (plus inherent ability). The developers then approached their problem (of developing AI systems) by observing experts at work and extracting what they could from those observations.

    Obviously, the AI line of research was unable to replace the experts. (I’m thankful for that, being an expert in my field. 🙂 However, the research was valuable (to me at least) in that it confirmed for me the degree that the problem-solving process is ingrained and not easily articulated.

    To relate this back to the essay, I’m positive that Gladwell has his process — his “secret sauce” — by which he does what he does. It probably varies a bit from instance to instance, but is overall the same. It might be interesting to examine his process, even dissect it. However, that process is unlikely to work for a non-Gladwell because it is founded on all the work done by Gladwell to reach that point.

    The same could be said for my approach to solving hydrology problems. Others have watched me work and read my reports. They could follow the steps that I use to create solutions to the problems I’m tasked with. But, without my training, experience, and judgement, there would be no confidence in their results because they lack my experience. They would have to develop their own… and then it would be their process, their work… and would likely be different than mine.

    • David Thompson on October 16, 2015 at 5:43 am

      There’s a missing “)” after the smiley… the emoji stole the closing mark! :/

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