Mark Bowden on discovering narrative and the value of beginner’s mind: “only if you are truly ignorant can you ask the truly ignorant question”
Next up in our series of highlights from last weekend’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference is Mark Bowden. Author of “Black Hawk Down” and a former reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Bowden has been a nonfiction writer in one form or another for 35 years. In these excerpts from his keynote address, he talks about the police raid that launched his narrative career and the challenges of reporting and writing the story that made him famous.
When I started working as a reporter for the Baltimore News American, I wasn’t particularly interested in being a newspaperman or a reporter. I had majored in English at Loyola College in Baltimore, and I wanted to write great stories, I wanted to write great books. I had been particularly inspired by some of the books that the so-called “new journalists” were turning out in the 1970s.
And so I knew what it was that I wanted to do — and I tell this to my students today, that I was pretty much in the same boat that they are now, in that I knew what I wanted to do, but I just did not have a clue how to get to that point. But it seemed to me that getting paid to write stories was closer to that goal than running a cash register at the supermarket. So I took a cut in pay, and I became a newspaper reporter.
My first job was covering Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Every morning I would drive from my home in Baltimore down to Annapolis, which was the capital of Anne Arundel County and where my office was. And halfway down was the county police headquarters. I got in the habit of breaking up my drive down to Annapolis by stopping in to police headquarters. And it was a really podunk operation. They had this unfortunate guy, Captain Lindsey, who had been given the very unenviable job of dealing with the press, which pretty much consisted of me and a number of other amateur reporters. And he got to like me. Every morning he’d have a cup of coffee waiting for me, and he had a stack of police reports from the night before.
And let me tell you something: a police department is a terrific reporting organization, because all they do is cruise around and look for trouble, and when something untoward happens, they have to write a little report. So many a morning, I would read through the stack of reports and I would come across a story that I would then spend the rest of the day following, and I often had stories that other reporters didn’t.
Well, Captain Lindsey admired my initiative, and so one morning he asked me if I would like to accompany a crack swat team from the county police who were going to be hitting all of, as he put it, “the major drug dealers in Anne Arundel County” one night some weeks hence. So I said, “Sure, sign me up. I’ll go.” So I showed up. I was 22 years old. I showed up in the parking lot of the police headquarters at about three in the morning, and here were all these Anne Arundel County detectives in civilian clothes drinking beer. They had cases of beer, wandering off to the bushes to urinate, having a good old time. And I thought, “I wonder if this is the way police always do drug raids?” But, you know, I was new to this, so I took notes.
So then we left, and we pulled up in front of the housing project outside of Annapolis. And I thought, “This is odd. Why would the major drug dealers in Anne Arundel County be living in the projects? Don’t they make any money dealing drugs?” That night, I watched as they banged on doors and they dragged people out in their pajamas and their underwear, and they rounded everybody up, and made a big commotion. The following morning, like seven o’clock in the morning, they had this very dramatic press conference in Annapolis, where they had invited all of the reporters from the newspapers in Washington and Baltimore and Annapolis, and TV and radio—it was a big deal. And laid out on tables in front so they could all get pictures were all the drugs they had seized from the housing projects the night before. Now, as I said, I was 22 years old. I was probably the youngest reporter in the room. This was around 1975. So I can say without a doubt that I had more experience with the recreational drug culture than any of the other reporters in the room, and what I was looking at was a paltry collection of drugs.
The Anne Arundel County police in the press conference announced that these drugs were worth $800,000 in street value, and they’d rounded up all these major drug dealers, which was of course ridiculous. Nevertheless, every news agency in Baltimore and Annapolis and Washington was going to report the story that way. The lede on their stories was “Anne Arundel County police last night raided all the major drug dealers in Anne Arundel County and rounded up an estimated $800,000 in drugs.” Seized them.
So how was I going to write that story? I knew that that wasn’t true, and yet, to write the story the way the newspaper wanted me to write stories, and be truthful, would have meant writing “Anne Arundel County police perpetrated an enormous fraud on the public last night. They rounded up a bunch of unfortunates from the housing projects and took their petty drug stashes and then claimed it was worth about $800.000.”
I maybe would do that today, but I actually lacked the gumption when I was 22 to write the story in that way. It was a bit of a dilemma for me, and so what I did was I simply wrote the story. I wrote what happened, beginning with the party in the parking lot, with the beer and the urinating, and then going on to my description of the unfortunates being roused from their apartments. And then we come to the press conference, and I describe the drugs that were on the table accurately and estimate what they’re worth, and then I quote the Anne Arundel County spokesman claiming that this is $800,000 worth of drugs.
The story was an enormous hit. My editors loved it, the readers loved it. It was a narrative. It was my way out of a thorny problem. Captain Lindsey was very unhappy with me, but he couldn’t be angry with me, because he knew that everything in the story was true. He had invited me along, and he got what he asked for, which was an accurate account of what happened.
I was never invited back, but that incident, that story, clarified a few things for me. It made me realize that conventional journalism, conventional reporting, requires value judgments. You have to decide, really before you sit down to write your story, what’s the essence of this story? What’s the most important fact that I have to offer? What’s the second most important thing? There was a real rigid format to writing these stories.
Writing a narrative, on the other hand, simply telling a story, to me, I realized, was more true. It was not only more fun to read and more fun to write, it moved out of the abstract world of newspaper journalism and into the real world, where there was a setting, there were people, and there were characters and action and dialog, and the story unfolded in a very comprehensible way. It also is a way of storytelling that respects the reader, who we can assume is intelligent enough to make up his or her mind about the significance of what it is that you’re telling them. It also left room – a well-told, true story—for differing interpretations of the story that was being told, just like life.
I generally begin working on a story in total ignorance, which I think is the ideal starting point for me, because only if you are truly ignorant can you ask the truly ignorant question. But I have only the foggiest idea of what the story is when I get started on it. And in fact, every story that I write, when I’m doing my reporting, I always come upon some information that completely destroys my concept for the story.
I think I know what the story is, and then I interview one more person, or I come across a document, or I see a video, or something, some piece of information that tells me, you know what, I’m wrong, I don’t get this. The initial response that I have when that happens is “Oh god, I’m screwed now. I’ve just wasted my time. I don’t get this all. The story’s gone all to hell.” But on a few moments of reflection or sometimes waking up the next morning, inevitably, the realization is, “Wait a minute. No, this story just got better.” Because my understanding of it has deepened. I have a much broader and different take on what happened than I had before. So, to me that’s the process.
And I can tell you it happened to me a number of times in writing “Black Hawk Down.” In those early meetings at Fort Benning, those original eight interviews, the Rangers all told me these fantastic stories, but what I didn’t know at the time was that the raid that is the center of the story of “Black Hawk Down” was a Delta Force raid, a special ops raid — a unit that the Army would not even acknowledge existed. It was totally a black ops unit, and so the Rangers whose job it was to set up a perimeter around the block where the Delta guys were doing their work were not allowed to mention the name of Delta Force. So they would try and tell me their stories, and they kept getting stuck. They would go out in the hall, and there would be a representative there from public affairs, and they’d huddle and confer. The soldier would come back in and say, “And then a soldier from another unit would did thus and so.” And I would say, “What other unit?” “I’m not at liberty to discuss that, sir,” he’d say.
So I left Fort Benning at the end of that that first day knowing that I had a great story, but knowing there was something essential about it that I wasn’t going to be able to get at, that I didn’t know. Well, the one question, and Kristen Hinman this morning in her talk said she always does this, and it’s something I’ve always done – when I interview people for a story, the last question I always ask is “Who else should I talk to?” And of course each of these Rangers that day had lists of their buddies who had fought with them, and many of them had, in the years since this battle, left the Army. You would be amazed at how much more a guy will tell you with a beer in his hand in his basement in Cleveland, than a Ranger sitting next to a public affairs officer at Fort Benning. So I eventually got to learn a lot more about Black Hawk Down.
Now, just as I don’t know what a story is going to be when I start out working on it, I have no idea how to write it, either. In fact, I try to preserve that state of mind. There’s this teaching in Zen called “beginner mind,” which says if you want to be original and creative, then you have to approach each new project as though you were an amateur, as though you had never done this before. And obviously, it’s not completely possible — or Zen would be easy, but I try to approach a story without knowing how I’m going to — often I honestly don’t know how I’m going to report it; I certainly don’t know how I’m going to write it. But I have a trick that I learned as a daily newspaper reporter. And that is, you carry your reporter’s notebook around with you, and you scribble notes when you interview people. Because I was writing for a daily newspaper, I was never certain in reporting a story when I had reached the end of the amount of information that I was going to get, or when an editor was going to call me and say, “You know that story you’re planning to send me, you were planning to write it tomorrow? Well, I need it now, I need it this afternoon.”
So I had begun the habit of taking that notebook and flipping it upside down, right from the beginning of the story and jotting a little outline of what the story would look like if I were writing it right now, on the basis of maybe just one interview and a little back story. And then I’d get another interview, and my knowledge of the story would be shot all to hell, and I’d have to redesign it, but I kept outlines always, so that when I had to write, I wasn’t having to start from scratch. And the wonderful advantage of doing that was that as I grew older, and I began working on stories that were far more complex, that would take me weeks and months and years to report and write, that habit of keeping that outline constantly alive and constantly changing enabled me to focus my story far more intelligently than if I hadn’t done that.
I knew in time what were the pieces of this story that I really needed to find out more about and focus my energies on, but even more importantly, what were the pieces of the story that I wasn’t going to be writing about. I didn’t have to waste any time gathering more information about this. So it focuses your efforts.
In composing a story as complicated as “Black Hawk Down” or “Guests of the Ayatollah,” each project gives you immense storytelling challenges that grow organically out of that particular story. In the case of “Black Hawk Down,” two of the major compositional problems I faced were that telling the story of a battle has so many characters, hundreds of soldiers, Somalis who were fighting. How do you possibly make the reader care about those soldiers? I wanted the story to be powerful, so that if Sergeant Eversman gets shot on page 60, the reader knows who Sergeant Eversman is, and he cares a little bit about what happens to the guy. He isn’t just a name on the page.
So the initial draft of “Black Hawk Down” had a 60-page-long first chapter, all of which concerned events that took place in the weeks and months before October 3rd, which is the day of this battle. And it gave me an opportunity to introduce the mission, tell the backstory of why they were there, describe the characters — who they were, where they came from, why they were where they were. All of which makes perfect sense, right? Except that when I showed the manuscript to my editors at the Inquirer, they both said, “You know this story really takes off when the helicopters lift off to go on the mission. You should just get rid of that whole first chapter.” Because they were interested in the action, that’s what really compelled them in reading it.
Of course, they were wrong about the most important thing. You needed the backstory; you needed the character information in order to care about the story.
So what I eventually did is I did what they wanted me to do for the serial in the newspaper, but when I went back to write the book, I took that first chapter, and I cut it into like a hundred pieces, and I found ways of shoehorning that back story into the action of the battle. To me today, when I look at that book, I can see all of the scenes where I made a cut and I inserted two paragraphs or two pages of background information. And to me it’s very noticeable, but no one has ever said to me that they noticed that in the story.
It was a good illustration both of what you can get away with in telling a narrative, that a reader is willing to be taken on a detour from time to time. You don’t need to maintain a constant breakneck pace. Also, it enabled me to pace the story, so that if there was a particularly intense period of action, I could step away from it for a page or two. I think it was really helpful in giving the reader an opportunity to digest all of this very traumatic storytelling.
The other big problem with “Black Hawk Down” was that the battle was enormously complicated, and things were happening virtually simultaneously at a number of major areas during the fight. So I had to go back and essentially rearrange the time in the book, not changing the reality, but changing the narrative flow. I decided to take all of the account of what happened on the convoy of armored vehicles, and that was all going to belong in one chapter, even though in its pure time frame, the beginning of that story of the wandering convoy happened before the second helicopter was shot down. In the book it comes after the second helicopter was shot down. I make this clear to the reader.
But stepping away from a straightforward chronology and using the tools that you have as a writer of narrative to make the story more coherent, to make it more digestible, was for me a real breakthrough as a writer. I began to see how a good writer can manipulate the techniques on the page without changing the truth of the story, to make the story more understandable to the reader.
[For more from the conference, take a look at our other Mayborn posts. For additional coverage of Mark Bowden's talk, see Joy Tipping's writeup at The Dallas Morning News. You can also check out DMN books editor Michael Merschel's summary of the Sunday sessions and his post on the casual community of great writers at the conference.]