What’s In the Box?

What’s In the Box?

When I was in grad school, one of my seminars spent an entire class on what I like to call the question of “The Box.”

We aspiring Historians (unknowingly in-training to become jaded Academics) were presented with the following challenge:

If you found a box of photographs and postcards from 100 years ago in your closet, what would you do? Would you use them to write a book, or would you put the box back?

Does the story matter?

The question revolved around the issue of truth. Without the ability to authenticate some sort of “true” story about the items in the box, are they worth our time? Do they matter to History? Should someone bother piecing together their story?

You may not believe this, but intense debate ensued – for nearly 2 hours if I remember correctly! Arguments twisted and turned around the room over the responsibility of telling a story from what was in the box.

One group argued that the postcards and pictures – because we didn’t know who collected them, or how, or why – should just go back in the closet. They should maybe be dusted off now and again for family memories or the like, but they shouldn’t be shared publicly. They shouldn’t be valued for the ideas and emotions and meaning they embody. They shouldn’t lay the groundwork for any story from the Past.

Another set of students argued that we should track down the story of the objects, and then we could begin to consider writing our book about them. If we had letters, maybe, or other forms of “official” documentation, then telling a (hi)story based on the boxed artifacts would be okay.

scattered vintage postcards

YES, the story matters!

I was in a third (very small group).

Like you (I hope), I was ready to start writing! How exciting to find a box full of some mysteries of the past that could give a little hint into how someone lived their life, or what they liked and collected. This was “real” enough for me – evidence that some average person (like me) once collected things (like me) and then forgot about them in a closet (also like me – ha!)

I couldn’t understand how someone could find something so fabulous and conclude it did not offer amazing insights, flashes of life, hints of personality, and all the other important sparks of a great story.

Where to begin?

So, my Nonfiction Friends, Memoir and Narrative alike, where would you begin with this treasure box? Where would you start and what stories would you tell?

As with any story, you need to know your WHY. And there are two big “whys” here: Your WHY and the box’s WHY.

WHY? is a key question for any story you write, but it is especially important if you are working with artifacts from the past, or source materials like journal entries and articles.


  • WHY is this a story that you must write? Be as specific as you can be about why the story here calls to you and why you can do to bring it to life. Think about what motivates you to write, and to write about this collection in particular.
  • WHY do the contents of the box go together? What is the central factor that creates a story from the chaos or the haphazard collection? As a nonfiction writer (narrative & memoir alike) you have the tremendous honor and power to make order out of chaos. With a stack of artifacts, this goes from a theoretical to a very material and exciting opportunity. Embrace it!
    stacks of old photographs

    Let’s begin.

    If you have pieces of the Past that are calling to you, inspiring a story, let me know.

    I’m here to listen and help you talk through the story these artifacts are telling you.

    And if you need a plan, I’ve got those, too.


    I'm ready to write my book!

    Plot or Not?

    Plot or Not?

    Plot seems like an easy thing to identify. We follow plots in the novels we read, the movies we watch, the TV series we binge. But when it comes to writing memoir and narrative nonfiction, plot can be a little harder to find.

    This handy quiz will help you find your plot in your memoir memories and nonfiction notes. Check your work against this list and remember that your nonfiction story will have a plot, an adventure, a change for your protagonist (even if it’s you) over the course of your story. It’s there, somewhere, waiting for you to find it.

    That’s what plot is, after all. Change over time. And whether you are writing your own story or sharing your expertise, your book needs to show your reader that something changes. That’s what makes it worth turning the page.

    Plot or Not: A Timeline

    Many writers start with a timeline.

    You’ve worked long and hard to organize your stories and information. You’ve mapped out the dates and put everything in the correct order. You pored over old journals and documents to make sure that your timing is correct. Everything hinges on the reader knowing how things happened and when and why and you’ve got it ready.

    This feels a plot… Look, you say! Change over time, literally, I wrote a timeline! I used colored markers and everything!

    So, is this a plot?

    Sadly, NOT a plot!

    A timeline is a lovely way to organize your thoughts and ideas, and is often a very necessary step in developing your story. However, a timeline is simply a list of things that happened. That change occurred to move from Point A to Point B is not inherently obvious.

    A timeline is also a great way to make order out of chaos, but a plot can be messy (and often is). Change is rarely easy, rarely predictable, and rarely obvious. As a writer, it is up to you to work through the cause and effect from one point on that timeline to the next.

    Plot or Not: A Family Tree

    Admit it, you love Ancestry.com

    Or you’ve taken one of those DNA tests and opened a conversation with “I’m 7% French – would you believe it!” and it started a fabulous conversation.

    (True story: I once had dinner with the guy who dressed in Lederhosen in the Ancestry commercial. It was his true story – he really was shocked to find out about those ancestors! And he’s a really great guy, too!)

    That family tree that you’ve worked so hard to build, and those stories you’ve collected from great-great grandparents who braved the unthinkable has inspired you to tell their stories. You are the one to preserve their legacy. And I am so impressed by you already!

    But, is gathering all those stories and people on that tree a plot?

    No, NOT a plot!

    A family tree is just a list of people. Their stories need more than branches to connect them. As an author, it is your joy and privilege and incredible opportunity to pull out the story that weaves throughout that tree. Your reader wants to know more than that these people lived. Your reader wants to know how their lives came together to change something in an enduring way.

    Think of your family tree instead as your cast of characters. They details and experiences are essential to your story so it’s fantastic that you have them organized already. Now it’s time to set the protagonist in the middle and build that plot through the branches. What are the changes that happen to your protagonist through encountering these other incredible people at important moments in their lives?

    There’s where your plot begins.

    Plot or Not: Data Set

    You’ve gathered all the info and carefully organized it in that massive excel spreadsheet or folder of word docs.

    For a researcher like you, this feels like the beginning. You have the pieces of the puzzle. You know what message they combine to tell.

    But is it a plot?

    No, NOT a plot!

    A spreadsheet, like our lists and trees, is just a list of things. They sing to you. You see all the beauty of their interrelationships and outcomes. But your task, your challenge, your great honor and responsibility as a writer is to translate that wonderful data into a story that best expresses the way the data will change the reader’s life.

    It may be that your protagonist heroically takes your reader through the journey to make sense of all that you have researched. Or it may be that for this nonfiction story, you need to remember that the person who changes the most from page one to page 250 is the reader themselves.

    Your organization is so necessary to your story.

    Now it’s time to begin to put it into action.

    Plot or Not: That Graph from High School

    Who remembers this one?

    We had tests on it in my high school. It was one of those things that was both incredibly fun (I mean, who didn’t feel cool because you now knew the word “denouement?”) and incredibly annoying (did we really need to fill in exactly what scene was the climax of The Crucible?).

    So when you think plot today, perhaps this basic school memory floats in. But maybe you think this was just some basic quiz information, not really applicable in “the real world.”

    Is this old-school graph really a plot?

    YES, it is a plot!

    It may feel basic, but you can use something like this to guide you through any book. It doesn’t matter if it’s The Great Gatsby, Wild, or The Devil in the White City. If you’re not sure, go back to your favorite book, that one that you someday want to write (and if you’re wondering, every single memoir writer I’ve ever worked with has referenced Wild, and every nonfiction writer brings up Devil… because they’re that good!). See where the points on this chart fall. Trust me, they’re in there.

    So when you are starting to translate your idea, or your timeline, or your list of people and things into a plot, ask yourself where will these points be for your protagonist?

    That uphill stretch? Those are changes. That fancy denouement? You get to write one of your own.

    edPlot or Not: This Wild Vonnegut Graph


    Kurt Vonnegut famously explain how stories take shape. He drew this. Shall we call this a plot? 

    His weird squiggles look very different from that high school chart we just talked about.

    So is this zig-zagging roller-coaster really a plot?

    YES, it is a plot!

    Take a moment and listen to Vonnegut explain it himself.

    If our high school chart was “Plot 101,” then Vonnegut’s theory of charting a plot is your upper level advanced grad course. It takes into account the fact that plots have nuance, change is never, in fact, a steady line uphill, and every plot turns and reveals change in different ways all the way to the final page.

    If you’re looking for some great writing advice, he has a whole book, that I heartily recommend.

    In the short term, it’s time to add momentum and authenticity to that basic school chart. How would you graph your story this way? Try it out.

    Plot or Not: Pixar Rule Number 4

    Our final consideration comes from a now-famous list of storytelling genius set forth at Pixar (yes, that Pixar). These rules for storytelling have supposedly been used to map out every single Pixar project.

    Rule No. 4 is a graph of a story. It starts with “Once upon a time…” of course.

    But before you tell me, “Caroline, I’m writing nonfiction. There’s no once upon a time…” or “Caroline, my memoir is real, not a fairy tale…” let me ask you to look closer at the steps in Rule 4.

    If you fill in this Pixar madlib, do you have a plot?

    YES, it is a plot!

    This is my favorite way to find a plot in a hurry, in fact. And it works every time!

    It doesn’t matter how data-heavy your story is, if you lean into this idea that everything happens because of the previous thing, you have a plot!

    Because of is a promise to yourself as a writer that you are only including the next story or the next detail because something has changed from your previous chapter or moment.

    Because of is a promise to your reader that they will learn something new based on the information you’ve already given them. It makes them trust you because you’ve promised no surprises. The story will make sense and at the end, they will learn something totally new.

    Now it’s your turn.

    I challenge you to try it out.

    Fill in that Pixar madlib, even if your instinct is to say “No, this isn’t for me!”

    And, if you need help making your plot bigger and better and filling it out into a whole amazing book, I have even more ideas in my back pocket I’m happy to share.

    So, tell me, what is your plot?

    Ted Lasso, Book Coach

    Ted Lasso, Book Coach

    Bird by bird, Coach.

    After a brutal defeat in Season 2, Ted reminds Coach Beard to take it “bird by bird.” (He has actually done it twice now: in Season 1 episode 2, and in Season 2 episode 8.)

    If you aren’t a writer, you might just think this is another of Ted’s weird sayings, like “I shouldn’t bring an umbrella to a brainstorm” or “I believe in… rom-communism.” You might think that “bird” is a cute nickname that Ted has for Beard. Or you might just think you misheard and have forgotten all about it.

    If you are a writer, however, you know that Ted is referencing the famous advice from equally famous writer, Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird is the title of her classic writing/life guide, (hybrid structure at its best, writer friends). Lamott’s wisdom is brilliant in its simplicity. She recounts a childhood story about her brother, a procrastinator who had put off a school project on… you guessed it, birds. Lamott’s father told him to take it “bird by bird,” meaning that the whole project might be intimidating, but it would feel easier to tackle one small, manageable piece at a time.

    Lamott offers this advice for all writers. Don’t worry about the complete manuscript as you write. Take it bird by bird, chapter by chapter, page by page, word by word.

    As I pondered the layers of (usual) awesomeness in Ted using this savvy writers’ reference to cheer up his fellow football coach, it occurred to me that Ted’s advice on and off the pitch often applies to a lot more than football. It’s actually great advice for writers!

    So I thought I would dive in and round up some other times that Ted Lasso, boundless optimist and feel-good hero of pandemic life, has offered great coaching advice that works for writers as well as for everyone’s favorite football club, AFC Richmond.

    “Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.”

    For Ted, this about sums up his life from the very beginning of the show. He knows nothing about football (that football), but being Ted, he doesn’t let that get him down. He doesn’t turn down the job, hide from the pitch, or hesitate to give his players his patented Lasso advice. He admits he has a challenge in front of him, and then lets himself be okay being uncomfortable so he can be a great coach in the long run.

    So, writer friends, how how often have you felt “uncomfortable” with your book?

    It’s a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? It’s often uncomfortable, and challenging, and makes you feel like you don’t know what you are doing. (If you do know what you are doing, let the rest of us know! Please!)

    The process of writing a book isn’t easy. It isn’t pretty. But if you start leaning into that hardship too much, instead of embracing it, you might start telling yourself to stop, or to put it away for a little bit. You might miss the opportunity to finish something wonderful.

    That’s what Ted is telling us here. Don’t let the challenge of writing talk you out of your greatness. Know that being an incredible writer will feel uncomfortable. Let that knowledge make you better! Remind yourself on your low days that every single one of your favorite writers has felt that way, too.

    Stay on the horse and write.

    “Be curious, not judgmental.”

    This comes from one of my favorite episodes, when Ted plays on peoples’ misconceptions to win a particularly important game of darts (yes, darts). He attributes the quote to Walt Whitman but, fabulously, it’s not actually a Whitman quote. It’s a classic internet mistake (see: any of Abe Lincoln’s famous thoughts on the internet). I don’t know if Ted’s misappropriation here is on purpose, but it’s classic Ted either way. So many levels of genius!

    For writers, just as for Ted, this advice is best taken often and daily.

    Be curious about the world around you, not judgmental. It will inspire your characters and plot, feed your imagination, and allow you to become even more creative. Your writing will flourish if you open yourself up to be curious.

    Be curious about your fellow writers and their books, not judgmental. They are the friends, colleagues, and inspirational folks who have been where you are. They have written lessons and guides and powerful advice into their stories. Read widely and with bold curiosity.

    Be curious about your own writing, not judgmental. Listen to what it teaches you as you write it; trust your instincts and love the story that happens. It may be fast or slow (more often slow) and it will change many, many times, but there is so much to discover with every draft.

    Never be judgmental about your story. Always be curious.

    “You know what the happiest animal on earth is? It’s a goldfish. You know why? It’s got a 10-second memory.”

    Great advice for Sam after a bad play. Great advice for writers, too.

    • Get a harsh critique? Be a goldfish.
    • Have a friend say being a writer is “a nice hobby”? Be a goldfish.
    • Get your first, fiftieth, or five-hundredth rejected query? Be a goldfish.

    “I brought you here to remind you that football is a f*cking game that you used to play as a f*cking kid. Cause it was fun, even when you were getting your f*cking legs broken. or your f*cking feelings hurt. So f*ck your feelings, f*ck your over-thinking, f*ck all that bullsh*t, go back out there and have some f*cking fun.”

    Sometimes, you just need a little Roy Kent in your life. #toughlove

    This quintessential Roy quote is from a moment in Season 2 when he helps Isaac rediscover his childhood joy of football. And haven’t you had those days when you need to remember why you love writing, why you love your story, why you love that you are brave and good enough to bring this story out to the world? 

    Don’t forget the first time you felt like a writer. Maybe it was that short story in grade school, or the article in your college newspaper. Maybe the feeling goes back to your daily journals, which you’ve still never shared with anyone but they’ve given you invaluable years of writing practice that other writers only dream of.

    When you have a day where the Imposter Syndrome kicks in, or the inner voice in your head tells you you’re not a real writer, or you get another rejection in what feels like your endless querying journey, don’t lose hope. Listen to Roy. Let go of the stress and the over-worrying and write with joy.

    Remember that being a writer is, deep down, fun and joyful and something you really just love doing.

    “You say impossible, but all I hear is ‘I’m possible.'”

    This is a classic. Ted isn’t the first to say it, and won’t be the last, so let me chime in.

    Whether you’re a footballer or a writer, there will be days when you struggle to be a goldfish.

    There will days, weeks, or maybe even years that go by when you think writing a book is impossible. Maybe you convince yourself that your life story isn’t “good enough” to be a memoir. Or maybe you think you’re not “professional” enough to write that incredible nonfiction manuscript that you’ve been researching for years. You worry about your narrative arc or your compelling characters. The big picture just feels impossible.

    But it’s not.

    Trust me. I’m a book coach. I know these things!

    Let me remind you that the mere fact of dreaming up your book is an incredible feat. Putting words on a page is more than most people will ever do in their lifetime. I am in awe of every single one of you for the bravery you show and the pure possibility you live in as a writer. You create. You make things possible. In even the briefest of moments, you are a writer.

    So when it feels impossible, know that I am over here watching you do something amazing, and all I hear is you shouting “I’m possible.”


    In you. In your story.

    What else is there to say?

    Trust your coach.

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