By Shawn Coyne
Published: March 24, 2017
This is the second in my Storygridding Nonfiction series. To read the first, click here.
“The Story Grid is interesting and all for fiction,” many say to me, “but I’m a journalist and I deal with facts and interview transcripts, you know ‘the truth’ … so it’s not going to be helpful to me.”
Au contraire, mes frères et soeurs.
The Story Grid is a way to clarify your writing intentions, especially for nonfiction writers. Once you know what kind/s of story you want to write, it then provides prescriptive advice to best realize it.
A pile of research with loads of facts, interviews and ephemera does not a compelling nonfiction book make. But that pile does hold the clues necessary for you the writer to organize those facts and interviews into a compelling argument that puts forth a well-conceived judgment of what exactly the data means.
For example, when my oldest son and I come home from a walk and we find a trail of bread crumbs from the mudroom to the kitchen (fact number one), and we discover a jar of peanut butter on the counter (fact number two), with a butter knife with a glob of peanut butter and raspberry jam soiling one of my finest linen napkins (fact number three) and after interviewing my wife and daughter about their whereabouts the previous hour (they were working through a violin lesson in my daughter’s bedroom), the story that I concoct based upon that information is not difficult to construct.
Posted in What It Takes
In January of 1966, when I was on the bus leaving Parris Island as a freshly-minted Marine, I looked back and thought there was at least one good thing about this departure. "No matter what happens to me for the rest of my life, no one can ever send me back to this freakin' place again."
Over forty years later, to my surprise and gratification, I'm far more closely bound to the young men of the Marine Corps and to all other dirt-eating, ground-pounding outfits than I could ever have imagined as I left Parris Island that first time. Gates of Fire is one reason. Dog-eared paperbacks of this tale of the ancient Spartans have circulated throughout platoons of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan since the first days of the invasions. E-mails come in by hundreds. Gates of Fire is on the Commandant of the Marine Corps' Reading list. It is taught at West Point and Annapolis and at the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico; and Tides of War is on the curriculum of the Naval War College. In 2009, I launched the blog "It's the Tribes, Stupid" (which evolved into "Agora"), to help gain awareness of issues related to tribalism and the tribal mind-set in Afghanistan—with the goal of helping the Marines and soldiers on the ground better understand the different people they were facing in Afghanistan.
My father was in the Navy, and I was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1943. I graduated from Duke University in 1965. Since then, I've worked as an advertising copywriter, schoolteacher, tractor-trailer driver, bartender, oilfield roustabout and attendant in a mental hospital. I've picked fruit in Washington state, written screenplays in Tinseltown, and was homeless, living out of the back of my car with my typewriter. My struggles to earn a living as a writer (it took seventeen years to get the first paycheck) are detailed in The War of Art.
With the publication of The Legend of Bagger Vance in 1995, I became a writer of books once and for all. From there followed the historical novels Gates of Fire, Tides of War, Virtues of War, The Afghan Campaign and Killing Rommel.
My writing philosophy is a kind of warrior code—internal rather than external—in which the enemy is identified as those forms of self-sabotage that I call "Resistance" with a capital R (in The War of Art). The technique for combating these foes can be described as "turning pro."
I believe in previous lives and the Muse—and that books and music exist before they are written and that they are propelled into material being by their own imperative to be born, via the offices of those willing servants of discipline, imagination and inspiration, whom we call artists. My conception of the artist's role is a combination of reverence for the unknowable nature of "where it all comes from" and a no-nonsense, blue-collar demystification of the process by which this mystery is approached. In other words, a paradox.
There's a recurring character in my books, named Telamon, a mercenary of ancient days. Telamon doesn't say much. He rarely gets hurt or wounded. And he never seems to age. His view of the profession of arms is a lot like my conception of art and the artist:
"It is one thing to study war, and another to live the warrior's life."