The story I wrote about the sinking of the Bounty won in the non-deadline category of the Times’ in-house story of the month contest for last October. I (finally) wrote the required essay about how I did it and what I learned:
“We should do Bounty,” I said to Bill Duryea.
“What else are you doing this year?” Mike Wilson said to me.
Every story is an opportunity. But let’s be frank. Some opportunities are better than others. The Times freed me up for most of a calendar year, and I did the same thing on my end, saying no to almost all freelance.
You get only so many chances.
I promised my wife all the work would be worth it.
The first thing I did was I read everything that had been written about the sinking, and everything I could about the captain, who lived in St. Pete, of course, and a bunch about the history of the ship. I do this with every story, because reading is reporting, too.
The next thing I did was I traveled to Portsmouth, Va., for the Coast Guard’s hearings about the Bounty. This was in February of last year. Surviving crew members testified, most of them in person, and so did Coast Guard staffers, shipwrights, captains of similar ships and other experts. The Coast Guard wanted to know what a lot of people wanted to know. At or near the top of the list: What were they even doing out there, on a replica wooden ship, in one of the worst storms in the history of the North Atlantic? It’s a good question. It was a good question for my purposes because it can be little or it can be big. The little question is the literal question. The bigger question, though, or questions: They all had been given the option to get off, and none of them did, or for the most part even really considered it. Why? What were they looking for out there? What were they getting? What were they getting from that ship and from her captain that they weren’t getting on land? This moved the story potentially into the fertile territory of the universal. What does anybody want? What is a meaningful life? How much risk is worth taking? What I heard in Portsmouth gave me a skeletal, chronological outline of the events that led to the sinking — also, though, and just as important, it gave me an engine, rough parameters in which to pursue. It’s what Mike would call The Big Idea.
Real-world challenge: The crew members who were on the Bounty on Oct. 29 didn’t want to talk to me. They didn’t want to talk to pretty much anybody like me. When people don’t want to talk to me, I go to the people who know those people the best — family, friends and so on — and I try to work my way in. There was a self-described Bounty “family,” and it was some 300-strong. They didn’t want to talk to me, either. In these situations I remind myself: You can’t talk to a second person until you talk to a first. Information leads to information, and people lead to people. Here’s how that happened in this case: I once wrote about a USF St. Pete professor. He since has become a friend. A former crew member just happened to be in one of his classes. Somehow the Bounty came up. He told her what I was working on, and vouched for me. That’s how I ended up talking to Brooke Mitchell. Brooke led to Sam Imes. Sam led to others. And after they talked to me, they talked to each other, which is what I wanted. At some point, it wasn’t just me contacting them -- it was the other way around. You never know quite what or who will help.
A similar thing happened with the survivors. I had to start somewhere. I started with Doug Faunt. He was the oldest survivor, but he certainly wasn’t untalkative, judging from what I had seen at the hearings, and he had a sort of avuncular, respected presence within the the crew. I figured he might be able to help me with some others if he deemed me worthy of that. His Facebook settings also were less private than some of the others’, and I noticed he soon was going to be getting on a different ship, in New London, Conn., of all places, the port from which the Bounty had departed. So I called him. I told him what I was trying to do but said I was hoping to talk to him in person. No notebook for me, and no obligation for him — just so we could talk, and so he could see me, and so he could make a decision on whether he felt he could trust me. I flew to Providence and met him at the train station in New London. I drove him in my rental car to his ship, and we talked on the drive over, and we talked sitting there, and before he got on the ship he told me he’d be fine with me coming out to his home in Oakland, Calif., to talk more, and on the record.
Doug led to Chris Barksdale.
Chris led to Jess Hewitt.
Jess led to Adam Prokosch.
Adam was sort of luck, but not all luck. I try to meet people where they want to meet, where they’re most comfortable, and that was true, too, with this story. I met Doug and Chris at their homes. I met Jess on Facebook. I met Adam at a bar. But here specifically is how that happened. I had heard from Sam Imes about a ship called the Lynx that was about to visit St. Pete. On the crew of the Lynx at that time was a guy named Lee Phelps. Lee had spent a lot of time on the Bounty. Convenient. I went down to the dock to introduce myself. Turned out Lee was dating Jess Hewitt. Shortly thereafter she contacted me on Facebook. She said she’d be willing to talk. That ended up being a little harder than I thought it was going to be. We were going to meet in Portsmouth, N.H., and then we didn’t because she said she wasn’t doing so well in the posttraumatic aftermath, which was of course understandable — but at some point in the process of trying to reschedule I noticed on Facebook that she was going to be at Pier 1 Pizza, at the bar, in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, the next night. I was already planning on being in Boothbay the night after that — at Pier 1, a big Bounty hangout when the crew was there for ship repairs — so I decided to juggle my schedule so I could be there the same night as Jess. It’s harder to say no to somebody standing in front of you. Jess walked in with Adam.
Adam was important. He was important because — and please forgive the cringe-worthy, too-clinical shop talk here — I needed a character who didn’t die. Robin Walbridge was a character because he was the captain. Claudene Christian was a character because of her backstory. You can’t have a story with 16 main characters. You just can’t. You’re the narrator, you’re in charge, and your job is to make choices. Sixteen characters is not a good choice. Sixteen characters is more than a tough slog in a story. Sixteen characters is a fatal flaw. What I needed out of a character who wasn’t the captain or Claudene was somebody who had this near-death experience, but lived, and now had something to say about it. Something like a lesson. Something that would help the reader make some sense of this at the end. Adam.
It sounds ridiculous, maybe, for a story that took most of a year, but the urgency with which I reported this for me was unprecedented. There was just so much ground to cover, so much to learn, so many people to talk to. It felt like I was reporting for a book so I could write a story for the newspaper. And in my mind, every day I didn’t do all that I could do, and had to do — every single day — that was going to make the finished product a little less good than it could’ve been, unavoidably and irretrievably, and I’d know it.
I went to California, to Virginia, to Erie, Pa., to Elizabeth City, N.C., to the Coast Guard base, twice, and to New England, twice, once for more than two weeks, hitting key spots in all six states of the region. I had never amassed this amount of material for a story. Nowhere remotely close.
And throughout, I read and read — books — from Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast to Dan Parrott’s Tall Ships Down, from Derek Lundy’s The Way of a Ship to the Patrick Goold-edited Sailing: Philosophy for Everyone, from Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea to Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, from Tom Brown's Field Guide to Wilderness Survival to Endurance, Alfred Lansing’s classic about Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition. I re-read The Perfect Storm. I bought Why Read Moby-Dick? at the Mystic Seaport gift shop. I read The Young Sea Officer's Sheet Anchor: Or a Key to the Leading of Rigging and to Practical Seamanship, by Darcy Lever and first published in 1808, because it was an important manual for those for whom the Bounty was important. I read a collection of notes, quotes and excerpts called A Mariner’s Miscellany because it was something from which the third mate read to his crew at the beginning of their watches. The language of ships, especially old ships, can be like a foreign language — beautiful, but foreign — and this reading was my way of learning it. It also let me immerse myself in the ideas swirling around the subject. There are ideas in the text of the story that would not have been there had I not done the reading I did. I’ve already said it, but I’ll say it again: Reading is reporting, too.
So many people did so much for this story — Bill, Mike, Mo Rivenbark, Don Morris, Tom Bassinger, Lee Glynn, Alex Sanchez. Just speaking for me, though, this was the most complicated, most challenging piece of work I’ve ever done, by far — which is why I wrote this story the way I write every story.
My process is my process.
The most important thing: Writing isn’t typing.
Writing is reporting.
Writing is structuring.
An appropriate structure lets words work. Words work not because of how they sound but because of where they sit.
I start building a structure with a broad brush. Where does this story start? Where does this story end? Who are my characters? What do they want? Do they get what they want? What’s in their way? What does this story say? What does this story really say? That kind of stuff. Chronology always has been and always will be the best organizing tool to tell a tale. Why fight that? I look for natural breaks and pivots. Ends of scenes. Ends of sections. This allows me to shorten my thinking into more manageable chunks. Get small to go big.
Only when the broad-brush structure is set do I start getting more specific. I do that with numbers. I number sections. I number paragraphs. I number down to sentences. For Bounty, there were the three separate days involved, too, so eventually the fifth sentence, say, of the seventh paragraph of the third section of the second day — that sentence was 22.214.171.124. But that’s getting too far ahead. First I just want the numbers establishing sort of sub-sections so I can begin what I call “clumping.” This consists of putting my best or most useful material in the appropriate order in the appropriate spots in the now sufficiently sturdy structure. I do this in a Google doc. Everybody reaches this point, when it’s time to get the material out of your notebooks and onto the screen, and it can feel overwhelming, especially for a story that’s not super short, right? Panic can lead to paralysis. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I want to mitigate that. And this is how I do it. I dump, but I don’t just dump — I dump what’s good, and I dump it where it needs to be dumped. I don’t call it an outline, but that’s what it is in spirit. Maybe I have 1,000 words from which I’m going to write one sentence in a particular spot in the story, but I want it all there, in front of me, where I can see it all together. It takes time to create this document, but it’s not mentally taxing because the more important thought work was done structuring. It’s drudgery, but I’m just keeping my feet moving. Hours matter. Don’t cheat. The document gets long, way, way longer than the story is going to end up being. For a freelance piece I just sent in that was a little more than 3,000 words, the initial document was approximately 30,000. Bounty? It took me six weeks to make the document, and it was just shy of 200,000 words. But in the story, in any story, every word is going to have to do its work, and every sentence, and every paragraph, and every section — and so I have to do my work, too. There are people who can just open a new document and start typing and say what they want to say how they want to say it. Those people are magicians. I am not a magician. I do it this way because I feel like I have to. I’m so fastidious on the front end so that hopefully on the back end — hopefully — I can be better than I actually am.
Anyway, I usually label this initial document the SHAPE, and to turn the SHAPE into the DRAFT … I hit print, and I take that stack of paper somewhere other than the office, usually Kahwa. I like to do this on paper, as opposed to on a screen, because on a screen I can’t see all that I want to see. On a screen, I can’t spread out two pieces of paper, three, five, whatever, to see what I have. To see where I’ve been and to see where I’m going. Scrolling doesn’t do it for me. Everything blurs and stuff starts to look the same. Also, at least for me, there’s something less intimidating about scribbling with a pen versus striking keys. With the keys, it’s all clickety-clack, that blinking cursor. With a pen, I can ... play a bit more. So I go through the SHAPE, top to bottom, start to finish, and I underline what sticks out — the best of the best, or the most useful, which aren’t necessarily the same thing. And I jot notes in the margin. I get to the bottom. I go back to the top. I do it again. This time, though, it’s more serious. Now I’m getting sentence-level granular. I’m looking at the material I’ve earned, and I’m using the parts the story demands, and I’m writing sentences — in the margins, in between paragraphs, in any available white spaces. Those sentences are getting numbers now too. More of me can focus on making good sentences because none of me is having to think about what I have, or what I’m trying to do, or how I’m going to make that happen. There’s no flipping through notebooks. There’s no looking stuff up. There’s no stopping to remind myself of a point that needs to be made or anything like that.
When I tell Bill, “I’m typing,” it means, “I’m all but done.”
For a 3,000-word story, or 90 to 100 inches, I might type for an hour, two tops. For a 20- to 30-inch story, it’s more like half an hour. For each of Bounty’s three parts, the first drafts of which ranged from 7,000 to 10,000 words, I typed for less than a full workday.
Because writing isn’t typing, and typing isn’t writing.
Typing is typing what I’ve already written.
In the end, the Bounty story did what most every story does. It ran. Came and went. I struggled a bit for the next few weeks. I slept more than I’d been sleeping. Partly that was because I was exhausted. There also was something practically postpartum going on. I got some really nice feedback from readers — mostly print readers, it seemed, by the way — and I got some really nice feedback from peers, colleagues and competitors around the country. But I’ll be honest. I was hoping for something more. More readers, I guess, or more social media shares, or more … what? Thing is, and this is what I had to come to grips with, no amount of attention on this story or buzz about this story could have been commensurate with how much of me it took to actually do it.
Finally: People at the paper didn’t tell me what the expectation was for this story. They didn’t have to. People who study happiness tell us to avoid comparisons, but that’s easier said than done. When I finished Bounty, I told myself I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t a Pulitzer finalist. All the work, I had told my wife, would be worth it.
Almost a decade ago, before I worked at the Times, I went to the old Nieman narrative conference in Boston and listened to a talk given by Kelley Benham. She said to make sure you have in your stories some things that you love. There are things in this story that I love.
And I learned a lot.
It’s unsettling trying to do something you’re not sure you can do, and empowering to discover that you can. Desperation is inspiration. Ditto terror.
No matter the story, no matter your process, no matter the timetable — somewhere in the middle, you won’t be able to see the end. Can’t stop. Keep going.
But the most important thing I learned doing Bounty — the most important thing I learned in 2013 — is that you can’t try to make something happen. All you can do is try to make something.