In the Weeds

My last post, Hitting the Wall, struck a chord with a number of readers and I’ve received a lot of incisive comments about my views on the Five Commandments of Storytelling and their application to Big Idea Nonfiction.

So first of all, I have to thank everyone who took the time to go down that rabbit hole with me.

Here’s a comment indicative of the level of discourse:

Shawn, you say that, “I confess that the bottom three quarters of my Foolscap page for The Tipping Point gives me great anxiety.” It shouldn’t. Provided you don’t confuse the Scientific Method with Research. There are many ‘methods’ of ‘research’. The nature of the arc of your argument is key to applying which ‘method’ is the best to apply to your ‘research data’. There are different methodologies of doing research and investigating the data in your field: psychology, social, science, organizations, gender issues and so on. Going to the ‘Scientific’ research approach to analyze the Data in and methodology on “Tipping Point” misses several other much more useful and properly applicable approaches to what is essentially a semiotic and psychological treatise on ‘memes’. I would have use a “qualitative” methodology rather than shoe-horn a ‘quantitative – pseudo-scientific’ methodology into a literature analysis. Your argument can be better, much better, and more appropriately investigated using other methodological approaches.
You are at the front end of the boat here – the rudder wheel is at the back of the boat – much easier to steer through the shoals of a literature analysis from there.

I admit that creating a crude five step version of The Scientific Method that correlates with the Five Commandments of Storytelling for fiction may not prove to be the be all/end all of Big Idea nonfiction story structure principles.

Yikes that’s a helluva sentence! We are some serious Story Nerds here to be even contemplating this stuff! But hey it’s fun and there is a payoff for all of our waxing and waning.

I’m certain of it.

I’m also certainly not wed to my thesis quite yet. (But my gut tells me I’m absolutely on the right track) I need to put it into practice, to test it in terms of my broader Story Grid methodology. And as I’m writing these posts as I’m formulating my ideas, it’s tough.

But it should be. If it weren’t tough, there would be no point. I’d just be reiterating what I’m already certain of, walking you through yet another perfectly fitting example of my erudition. I could easily Storygrid The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and innumerable others, and there is value in that, but I wouldn’t learn all that much doing it.

But I don’t want to look like an idiot either.

So what to do?

Should I put a pin in this for now, sign off for a few months and run to the library? I could then fill in all of the obvious holes in my reasoning that incisive readers of the blog have brought to my attention.

I confess that I’m not up to speed on semiotic and psychological treatises on ‘memes,’ the history of Philology, or a number of other very tempting subjects to immerse myself in that could prove invaluable tools to perfecting my machine.

And I admit those holes in my education embarrass me. Where do I get off writing about The Scientific Method as it applies to Nonfiction prose when I don’t know all of the nuances?

Why not take the time to educate myself, do more research, to cover over the holes in my thinking… Then when I come back to it, I’ll be refreshed and ready to hit this project again with renewed fervor and confidence. I’ll be able to answer the hard questions about all of the sprockets and coils involved in Big Idea Nonfiction Storygridding as well as its global machinery.

Plus I can finish a whole slew of other work I’ve put on the backburner since I started this project. I need to edit those two books that I know I how to fix with minimal effort. I have to take care of that health insurance issue, get some bids on replacing that section of roof on the shed that needs to be replaced, and obviously spend more time with the kids…

Makes sense right?

But in Hitting the Wall I also referenced a book that Steve Pressfield wrote and Black Irish published with Seth Godin’s Domino Project called Do the Work.

Here’s a chunk from the very beginning that I need to remind myself right this very moment.

Stay Stupid

The three dumbest guys I can think of: Charles Lindbergh, Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill. Why? Because any smart person who understood how impossibly arduous were the tasks they had set themselves would have pulled the plug before he even began.

Ignorance and arrogance are the artist and entrepreneur’s indispensable allies. She must be clueless enough to have no idea how difficult her enterprise is going to be—and cocky enough to believe she can pull it off anyway.

And this:

Be Stubborn

Once we commit to action, the worst thing we can do is to stop.

More to come.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of the Storygridding The Tipping Point posts and The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.

23 comments on “In the Weeds

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Really relieved to reach the end of your post — yes, the worst thing would be to stop – we all followed you into the weeds and we’ll follow you out again. Stay stubborn, hold the course. As always, thanks!

  2. I’m susceptible to questions from those with greater expertise in some area. Easy to wonder if more information on A, B, and C might make me better able to discuss X, Y, and Z.

    Over the decades I’ve realized, nah, probably not.

    I do not need to understand photosynthesis to build a bookcase out of wood.

  3. Mike says:

    I haven’t read DTW yet but I really need to. Thanks for the reminder, Shawn. This article is timely advice for any writer (or aspiring artist). It’s always so tempting to think (before or during a writing project): Shouldn’t I really know more about [insert subject here] before I can write this? The answer to that is Stay Stupid and Be Stubborn. One could always know more but that’s such a slippery slope. The more you learn, the more you’ll realize you don’t know. By the time you learn more about the subject, you’ll be older and no closer to reaching your goal of a finished work. If you just start and keep going you’ll have learned about something much more important and valuable: YOUR CRAFT.

  4. Tony Levelle says:

    I vote for “stupid and stubborn.”

    Several years ago I had the good fortune to hang out with an online group of narrative nonfiction authors. Whenever I got a chance, I would ask people about their processes.

    The authors I talked to seemed to spend a lot of time on developing timelines. Once they had a timeline to organize the events, they would think about placing the events on a narrative arc. Very few of them had any formal training in film, script writing, or story. Their narrative arcs ranged from the spiral described by John McPhee in the New Yorker, to something like a standard three-act arc as described by John Hart in his book Story.

    As I recall, Tipping Point does not lend itself to a linear timeline, but sketching one out might help give perspective into Gladwell’s process.

    PS: It would be really cool if Mr. Gladwell would hear about, and contribute to this thread…

    1. Tony Levelle says:

      Yikes! A couple errors in my post…

      1. Jack Hart’s book is Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction (not Story, as I wrote.)

      Storycraft is a good book. It is here:

      2. My post makes it sound like I talked to John McPhee. Hah! I wish! I have never talked to Mr. McPhee.

      I only wanted to make the point that the writers I talked to began with all kind of squiggly ‘narrative arcs’ and not the standard three arc structure.

      McPhee’s article on structure is here:

      1. Patrick Maher says:

        Excellent references/links Tony. Salient too. For me. Imagine, ten degrees, five at postgrad level, prize winning PhD and the ONE lasting, persistent memory of it all is when one of my examiners said my PhD read like a detective novel. Damn, that felt good.
        You are right, all the research and literature review stuff I got under my belt in those years was clearly marked by either wading through the boring stuff or relishing the well-written narrative sources. It makes a real difference to the reader when dense material feels like a story. Again, thanks for the links.

  5. Herbert Exner says:

    You decided to be a Now-ist (copyright Joi Ito, Head of the MIT Media Lab) and just do it. This is great!

    Making the all new there’s not much history to learn from? Now-ists optimize risk…by making danger (failure) and opportunities (a break through) a positive contribution. A few options may help?

    I’m in the weeds…can’t get out alone.

  6. Steve says:

    Nice post Shawn, I hide in research all the time.

  7. Matt says:

    Guess who’s been using “I need to know more about structure before I write” as an excuse not to do the work? Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Patrick Maher says:

    Interesting! We’ve moved from scientific method to research to rigour. Charles Lindbergh, Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill. were NOT dumb. They were at the cutting edge and they had an edge over everyone else in their field. Why? They applied rigour. Often to a writer that is as simple as ‘bum glue’. Oh, and if you need to be persuaded to think laterally about choosing any method to apply to any subject of study or interest – look here:

  9. Patrick Maher says:

    I guess the trait common among Charles Lindbergh, Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill and all writers is creative visualisation – sure doesn’t make them dumb.

    1. Hi Patrick. I think another way of looking at the “dumb”comment is by thinking about it in terms of other people’s perspective. Of course Lindbergh, Jobs and Churchill weren’t dumb. But the people who laughed at their ambitions, dreams and visions saw them as dumb (before they actually pulled off their dreams, visions and ambitions) because they thought their dreams, visions and ambitions were so lofty, Lindbergh, Jobs and Churchill would never pull them off.

      This reminds me of my favourite Steve Jobs quote. Jobs was saying the same thing when he said: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes …the ones who see things differently…they’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo…You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify of vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things…They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because they people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

      Substitute the word “crazy” for “dumb” in the above quote and you get what Seth Godin (and Shawn) are also saying.

      Shawn has chosen to listen to his gut and that is something we all need to learn to do. Einstein knew that. It’s why he said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Yes Einstein did years of research but he also listened to his inner voice. He had a thinking chair, he listened to classical musical, and he went for long walks in the woods in order to give him access to his intuition – the forgotten and sacred gift.

      Shawn, I’m so glad you are listening to your faithful servant. It won’t steer you wrong (but of course you already know that).

      Thanks for talking to us about your dilemma. Your honesty has made for an amazing learning opportunity for all of us.

      Brilliant teaching, once again!

      1. I am reminded of Richie Norton’s book The Power of Starting Something Stupid which intelligently discusses the concept. Would have been a tough sell if he actually meant we should be stupid, though he points out that even the most amazing results can come from what even feels stupid to us when we start it.

      2. Patrick Maher says:

        Exactly Debbie – as I said, Creative Visualisation (or vizualisation in the US). They ‘appeared’ to be dumb but they could see things others could not see. They applied rigour because they believed in that vision (methodological rigour). Their visions were ‘real’ to them. The clarity of those visions energised their rigour and they followed through and did not give up in spite of the nay-sayers.
        But we are talking about the Scientific Method here and we must also be aware of – and careful not to rush to discipleship of someone who is still engaged in their search for a deeper understanding of a new idea and who appears to be floundering.
        Shawn is not floundering – he is searching and experiencing quite normal cognitive dissonance. He says, “I’m also certainly not wed to my thesis quite yet. (But my gut tells me I’m absolutely on the right track) I need to put it into practice, to test it in terms of my broader Story Grid methodology. And as I’m writing these posts as I’m formulating my ideas, it’s tough.”
        My compass would not place reliance on ‘Gut Instinct’ while a person is discovering or researching a new concept. Many things in ‘meme’ theory are intuitive and many are counter-intuitive. Gut instinct is not reliable.
        Shawn says, “And I admit those holes in my education embarrass me. Where do I get off writing about The Scientific Method as it applies to Nonfiction prose when I don’t know all of the nuances?”
        This is a critical insight… at the right time.
        There is a quick path to a solution –
        ONE: Read the three books I suggested on Memes and frame what they have to say against The Tipping Point. Look for confirming and disconfirming arguments. Track those arguments to see if there is congruence between them and between the texts. This does not defeat the Story Grid.
        TWO: Consider (not necessarily adopt) other methodologies more suited to the dialectic in ONE above. This does not defeat the Story Grid.
        THREE: Then, when the arguments are in order and a real theory emerges, set out the theory and the sources and the arguments and the insights and the conclusions and write it up using The Story Grid.
        That us not dumb – that is smart. End of cognitive dissonance and end of doubt and uncertainty.

      3. Herbert Exner says:


        “Bend reality” was one of SJ’s (14?) success factors.
        Doing that you’re quite alone…no history to learn from, no connections, no risk management…

        The pioneers get the arrows…settlers get the land?

        In the connected world, the pioneers may get the land…settlers pay the rent. 😉

        Agree, Shawn is right

      4. Oops, I meant to say: Shawn, I’m so glad you are listening to your sacred gift. It won’t steer you wrong (but of course you already know that).

        And I’m adding some new comments to the conversation:

        Einstein called Physics an intuitive and concrete science. He said it’s the supreme task of the physicist to arrive at universal elementary laws by deduction, but there is no logical path to these laws. Only intuition “resting on sympathetic understanding of experience can reach them.”

  10. Patrick Maher says:

    I don’t want to say the words ‘Content Analysis’ or ‘Discourse Analysis’ , so I won’t. Just the simple One, Two, Three approach above is adequate for this task.

    1. Patrick Maher says:

      Just follow a simple, but formal path: This is an oldie but still a goodie. I used to use this to get my Masters by Research and PhD candidates up to speed. Deeper research almost always followed this short approach – but this method gets the fog out of the way and opens windows in the mind.

      1. Start with the concepts you want to examine.
      for example, these are concepts. The concept of ‘dog’. The concept of ‘cat’. A concept captures common traits and discards lots of detail. A concept is a box of particular things about something of interest (‘phenomena of interest’). You observe that dogs and cats share some common things but are also different in some ways. Dogs are also different from each other, as are cats. Essentially though dogs and cats are different from each other, and we decide that is the ‘phenomena of interest’ for the purposes of our research. Research begins with ‘concepts’. You are interested in certain phenomena.

      2. Establish your ‘phenomena of interest’. It can be written down in ONE to THREE sentences.

      3. Formulate your theory – ONE sentence.
      Theory: ‘ dogs and cats are different.’
      Our research is to ‘establish’ this theory. It will focus on the ‘phenomena of interest’ – which are some particular traits common to both concepts – ie, voice, territoriality and dependence. Set up a hypothesis or two to elaborate and test these (tip: begin with ‘that’).

      4. Formulate ONE or TWO hypotheses. ONE or TWO sentences
      Hypothesis 1: That dogs dislike people entering their territory and growl and bark if they do. Whereas cats welcome people into their territory and meow and purr when they do.
      Hypothesis 2: That cats are more independent than dogs.
      We now have the stuff we are going to research – using whatever qualitative or quantitative ‘method’ we may adopt. At the end we will confirm or disconfirm these hypotheses. We may also refine our theory, for example: ‘The behaviour of dogs and cats differ along behavioural lines’. And we may conclude that ‘The behaviour of dogs and cats is markedly different in relation to their responses to intrusions into their territory and their dependence on their human owners.

      5. Write a brief Explanatory ABSTRACT:
      Abstract Explain and establish the ‘phenomena of interest and declare your theory)

      6. Now write an INTRODUCTION:
      Introduction: Significance and Purpose of the Study (justification in terms of trends in the literature. Trends and issues, research and practice, themes which define the scope of the research, key questions, issues, problems, propositions for later consideration. )

      7. Write a LITERATURE REVIEW:
      Literature review: What is the state of current knowledge concerning the hypotheses? Key authors and the theoretical issues they identify, particularly in relation to the ‘phenomena of interest. Weight the Lit Review about 2/10 concepts, 3/10 theory, 5/10 hypotheses. Find stuff that confirms or disconfirms the ‘phenomena of interest’. ONE: Read the three books I suggested on Memes and frame what they have to say against The Tipping Point. Look for confirming and disconfirming arguments. Track those arguments to see if there is congruence between them and between the texts. Other stuff may be interesting but if it is not directly related to the ‘phenomena of interest’ it is not related to your research and therefore irrelevant – leave it out . This does not defeat the Story Grid.

      8. Write a CONCLUSION:
      Conclusion (how your hypotheses inform, confirm or disconfirm your theory and contribute to the field of knowledge, limitations and constraints, and possible future research). A lot of researchers have problems with the idea that disconfirming a theory is a waste of time – it is very valid research.

      Again, this is a very simple approach – but it is a valid way to go with this text. It does not defeat the Story Grid.

  11. Patrick Maher says:

    Why am I arguing that the Scientific Method may not be the best way to analyse a text? Because each discipline has its own set of critical statement sets – for example:

    Management research generally require you to show relationships.
    Details & Illustrations Definitions
    Cause and effect
    Complex arguments
    Fact, interpretation, opinion
    Cases and models (examples)
    Contributions to Net Profit
    Might require a chart or diagram ie
    46% Promotions
    34% Advertising
    12% Media
    8% Packaging
    • Global Economic Background
    – “What’s Going On?”
    • Financial Reports
    – “How Are We Doing?”
    • Report From the Director
    – “Where Are We Going?”

    Physics scientific method looks like:
    experiments – Proof explanations
    applications – Information theories
    predictions and examples – Examples

    Chemistry scientific method looks like
    experiments equations calculations
    structures theories relationships

    History explores causes and effects in a time frame:
    – Major historical events tend to have :
    – economic
    – geographic
    – political
    – causes and effects

    Philosophy looks like
    – proofs
    – arguments
    – explanations
    – examples

    You figure the set for Literature and the subset for social commentary. It won’t look like Scientific Research.

  12. Drew McArton says:

    @Debbie, @Joel

    … and it may also even be true that both crazy and stupid are not always as bad as they told us when we were kids …

    Fantasy may, as it did with Churchill, take the form of a conviction that one is being reserved for a special purpose, if not by the Diety, then at least by fate. One of the most remarkable features of Churchill’s psychology is that this conviction persisted for the greater part of his life, until at the age of 65, his fantasy found expression in reality. As he said to Dr Moran, ‘This cannot be accident. It must be design. I
    was kept for this job.’ Moran was undoubtedly right when he wrote about ‘the inner world of make-believe in which Winston found reality.’

    It is probable that England owes her survival in 1940 to precisely this inner world of make-believe. The kind of inspiration with which Churchill sustained the nation can never be based on judgement, but on an irrational conviction, independent of factual realities. Only a man convinced that he had an heroic mission, who believed that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, he would yet triumph, could have conveyed this inspiration to others. It was because all his life he had conducted a battle with his own despair that he could convey to others that despair can be overcome.

    So in one period of his life, at least, he was fortunate, for in 1940 his inner world of make-believe coincided with the facts of external reality in a way which very rarely happens to any man. It is an experience not unlike that of passionate love, when for a moment the object of a man’s desire seems to match exactly with the image of the one woman he carried within him. In 1940 Churchill became the hero he had always dreamed of being. In that dark time what England needed was not a shrewd, equable, balanced leader. She needed a prophet, a man who could dream dreams of victory when all seemed lost. Winston Churchill was such a man, and his inspiration owed its dynamic force to the inner world of fantasy in which he lived and moved and had his being.
    (Anthony Storr MD FRCS)

    Nobody who lived in England in the summer of 1940 will ever forget the cheerfulness of the people. One caught Churchill’s infectious spirit; that destiny had conferred a wonderful benefit upon us and that this was a great time to be alive. There is no doubt that it was this that brought the British people through their ordeal. In 1931, when Churchill went into eclipse, Harold Nicolson wrote of him:

    ‘He is a man who leads forlorn hopes, and if ever the hopes of England become forlorn, he will be summoned to lead us again.’

    So it came to pass. There are times when dreams are better than facts.
    (Robert Rhodes James)

    1. Patrick Maher says:

      So, write them down in the Story Grid using the Scientific Method.

    2. I remind myself at regular intervals, Drew, that “smart” and “sane” are not the right measures. Better are love and kindness and interestingness.

      So looking forward to your book. Write it like you write here, eh?

    3. Drew, I LOVE what you’ve written. You struck a chord so deep that I was covered in goosebumps while reading it.

      People laughed at Oprah when she said that she knew she was destined for greatness at a young age.

      We are watching the very thing you describe play out right now with the beautiful Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner journey. People think he’s nuts too.

      Just before transitioning, Bruce said that he knew he was embarking on a Hero’s Journey, that everything he had been through had been for a greater purpose. He knows with deep conviction that it’s his purpose to change the world with his story and that’s what’s giving him the courage to do what’s he doing.

      Bruce started the journey and Caitlyn will finish it, and together (two genders, one soul) they will indeed accomplish their mission.

      There isn’t a single doubt in my mind.

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