Cursing John McPhee

Before anything else, acknowledgements to various places that have helped me launch In Solo Time, the prequel to last year’s Solo Act. More to come as the fall unfolds. In no particular order, many thanks to:

Now, on to the screed. I love John McPhee, regardless of anything I say after this. He’s the consummate long-form nonfiction writer on topics as diverse as  oranges, the pine barrens of New Jersey, and the American shad. I started reading him when I came across Encounters with the Archdruid in the late seventies and followed his work in the New Yorker and his books, right up to his most recent book, Draft No. 4, which summarizes the lessons of the writing course he’s taught at Princeton since 1975. This last one, I’m afraid, is what’s plunged me into the Slough of Despond.

In his chapter on Structure, McPhee recounts how his high school English teacher forced him (and presumably his classmates) to outline every piece of writing before he started to write. In the Draft No. 4 chapter, he recounts how he decided on structures for various of his projects, drawing shapes, arrows, mazes, recurring curves, and lines peppered with dots well in advance of the point at which he wrote anything down. Many of these structures are marvels of architecture, reflecting deep thinking about the relationships among bits of information and story he’s picked up in his research travels, how to create the reader’s journey through the arc of the bales of information he’s picked up. All of this thinking he accomplishes before he writes a word.

For me, it usually takes three or four drafts of a novel to decide if there’s even a story in it. I can’t seem to think out the arc of a tale ahead of time, let alone what its ideal structure is, until I’ve thrown some words down on the page to work with. I remember an interview with Calvin Trillin in which he called his first drafts the “vomit draft.” I’m still heaving three or four rounds in. (I had a conversation with another writer once in which she told me she felt like she had to grow the tree before she carved it into furniture, which may be a more pleasant metaphor.)

At any rate, the fact that McPhee can create these elaborate structures and write to them amazes me, though I know it probably shouldn’t. The more time I spend with writers, having those tentatively weird and revealing conversations about process and procedure, the more I realize that everyone’s process is a unique collection of quirks, myths, prejudices, amulets, and incantations that works, mostly. If there were an easy way to get it done, someone would have patented it and be living on a yacht by now.

So I’ve calmed myself down. Temporarily. Yes, I cursed McPhee when I read Draft No. 4, until I realized my own strange process works in its own way. Of course, he has published a few more books than I have . . . I wonder if I took up drawing . . .

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4 Responses to Cursing John McPhee

  1. The best path to insanity often involves trying to adopt the way of others.

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  2. Dick…after nearly 30 years at this, I find different books have different processes, my own process changes, and sometimes I’m without any circles, arrows, lines, or other elaborate structures, just sitting at the end of chapter 20, maybe 200+ pages into the book, with NO IDEA what happens next

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