If you want to write a book, John McPhee's advice is indispensable
This is one in a series of essays being published this year celebrating the craft of writing. They will become chapters in my new book, "The Big Book of Good Writing Advice," to be published by Little, Brown. You can access the chapters at this link.
Two books sit on my desk. The first was published in 1977, the year I migrated from university teaching to the newsroom. Forty years later, the second arrived via Amazon, confirming an affinity four decades in the making. The first is "The John McPhee Reader," an anthology of a dozen excerpts of New Yorker pieces, most of which would become well-known nonfiction books. The second is "Draft No. 4," a collection of eight New Yorker pieces by McPhee on the craft of writing, reporting and editing.
The first book serves the courses of a banquet; the second reveals the secrets of how they were prepared.
Although he does not write to everyone’s taste, McPhee stands as one of the best American writers of nonfiction of the past half-century. To test that opinion, I asked my 11,000 Twitter followers to list the authors they would place in their nonfiction hall of fame. I received 200 nominations, including the likes of Joan Didion, Robert Caro and Bill Bryson.
McPhee was mentioned often, and I would place him near the top. My writing hall of fame — like baseball’s — includes in its criteria for selection both quality and quantity. Baseballers like Bo Jackson and Don Mattingly shone like shooting stars, but burned out with injury. By my count, McPhee, at the age of 86, has produced 31 books since 1965. (Shakespeare, remember, gave us 37 plays, and he didn’t have to do much reporting.)
McPhee, an author and teacher at Princeton, his alma mater and home base since childhood, has become something of a role model for me as I enter my 70s. Les Paul played guitar gigs at the Iridium bar in Manhattan into his 90s, and William Zinsser, blind at the age of 92, was taking poetry lessons from a young tutor. (Hold the Metamucil and Viagra, Doc, I’ll have a double shot of iambic pentameter.) McPhee still writes and teaches, and his new book extends his lessons beyond those tyros at Princeton fortunate enough to join his class.
In fact, I think of John Angus McPhee and me as double-crossed doppelgangers. After all, he has been married twice. (Once for me). He has four daughters. (Three here.) He graduated from Princeton and teaches there. (I applied but didn’t get in.) We both were great admirers of the basketball and intellectual skills of Bill Bradley. (Okay, check that box). He has written for the New Yorker for four decades. (Damn, I’d like to make it onto those pages just once.) He has never used a word processor. (I wrote my first draft of my first book, in 1985, on a Royal Standard typewriter.)
Here’s the problem with choosing McPhee as any kind of a role model: He has lived a privileged writing life. He testifies that he writes what he wants, when he wants, at his own pace. He admits that on only two occasions has he acted upon an assignment suggested by an editor. On only two other occasions has he followed a story idea suggested by a reader.
And check this out, on his choice of story subjects: “I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe twenty or thirty years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than ninety percent.” I understand a writer’s attachment to youthful interests. I still write about my parochial school education, sports, and rock and roll. But I have also written about the Holocaust, the Millennium, AIDS, 9/11, public literacy, responsible journalism and many other topics for which I acquired interest well after I marched to Pomp and Circumstance.
An accomplished copy editor I know recently described reading McPhee as “a slog.” I get that criticism. Some of his topics — geology, for example — might not have wide appeal, in spite of his skill as a vivid explainer and a nuanced profiler of characters. In describing the evolution of his work as a writer, McPhee gravitates towards theme over straight chronology, creating too many impediments, some would argue, to building narrative energy. That said, at his best, he reigns supreme. I had almost memorized a moment in "Coming into the Country," his book on Alaska, and was delighted to see that he had chosen it to include in his writing book.
Riding on an Alaskan river, McPhee and company come upon a bear:
He was young, possibly four years old, and not much over four hundred pounds. He crossed the river. He studied the salmon in the riffle. He did not see, hear, or smell us. Our three boats were close together, and down the light current on the flat water we drifted toward the fishing bear.
He picked up a salmon, roughly ten pounds of fish, and, holding it with one paw, he began to whirl it around his head. Apparently, he was not hungry, and this was a form of play. He played sling-the-salmon. With his claws embedded near the tail, he whirled the salmon and then tossed it high, end over end. As it fell, he scooped it up and slung it around his head again, lariat salmon, and again he tossed it into the air. He caught it and heaved it high once more. The fish flopped to the ground. The bear turned away, bored. He began to move upstream by the edge of the river. Behind his big head his hump projected. His brown fur rippled like a field under wind. He kept coming. The breeze was behind him. He had not yet seen us. He was romping along at an easy walk. As he came closer to us, we drifted slowly toward him. The single Klepper [kayak], with John Kauffmann in it, moved up against a snagged stick and broke it off. The snap was light, but enough to stop the bear. Instantly, he was motionless and alert, remaining on his four feet and straining his eyes to see. We drifted on toward him. At last, we arrived in his focus. If we were looking at something we had rarely seen before, God help him so was he.
This is about as close to art as nonfiction gets. McPhee, thank goodness, is a generous writer, never keeping his secrets to himself, but sharing useful strategies without imposing them on students or readers. Just remember his privilege, fellow writers. You and I may work on deadline. McPhee has license to extend his efforts “for as long as it takes.”
That said, these tools and habits can work for writers across the board:
- “You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages.”
- “Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.”
- “Often, after you have reviewed your notes many times and thought through your material, it is difficult to frame much of a structure until you write a lead. You wade around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don’t see a pattern. You don’t know what to do. So stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.”
- “The lead – like the title – should be a flashlight that shines down into the story. A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this.”
- “I always know where I intend to end before I have much begun to write.”
- “Editors are counselors and can do a good deal more for writers in the first-draft stage than at the end of the publishing process.”
- “If I am in someone’s presence and attempting to conduct an interview, I am wishing I were with Kafka on the ceiling. I’d much rather watch people do what they do than talk to them across a desk.”
- “Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.”
- “Writing is selection. When you are making notes you are forever selecting. I left out more than I put down.”
- “I have never published anything on a science that has not been vetted by the scientists involved.”
- “Writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon.”
- “If you look for allusions and images that have some durability, your choices will stabilize your piece of writing.”
- “In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes, while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists.”
- “With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of — at least ninety-nine to one.”
- “If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.”
- “Forget market research. Never market-research your writing.”
- “I scoop up, say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use.”
- “Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”
Over the years, I developed a friendship with William Howarth, who taught in the English department at Princeton, and who edited and wrote an introduction for "The John McPhee Reader." Forty years before the publication of "Draft No. 4," Howarth offered rich insight into McPhee’s working method.
I was about 32 years old when I first read Howarth on McPhee. At the age of 30, I had written a newspaper column about the things I would like to accomplish by the age of 40. “Write one good book” was at the top. I even had a topic: teaching writing to children. For three years I had been visiting Bay Point Elementary, my three daughters’ public school. Working with the language arts teachers there, I began to experiment with how to teach writing to children, using some of the tools of journalism and nonfiction. Every child, for example, received a reporter’s notebook. After every class, I sat and wrote for about 15 minutes in a journal. Over three years, I had what I thought was wonderful material: writing lessons, case studies, profiles of students and teachers, examples of children’s work, arguments (that you should never use writing as a form of punishment), and, most of all, many fun and inspirational stories. Lots of stuff, but what now? How do you write a book?
The cavalry appeared in the form of John McPhee, via Bill Howarth. I followed the Princetonian’s methods, almost to the letter, working first by hand, then on a typewriter, and then on a computer — this was 1985, remember.
In imitation of McPhee:
1) I transcribed my handwritten notebooks. As I typed, I added thoughts, phrases, captured from memory or called to mind by reading. I was already selecting, knowing early on that there were many elements I would not use. I made a photocopy of these elaborated notes and placed them in a binder.
2) I read the notes — and took more notes on my notes — looking for themes, categories, patterns that might become building blocks of structure.
3) I sat down and attempted to write — without reference to my notes — the first draft of a lead. It was not a one-paragraph lead for a feature story, but about a 1,500 word commentary on why the teaching of writing to children was so important.
4) I shared my lead with a few trusted friends and colleagues to let them know where I was headed, but to also gain confidence in what would become the focus — the governing idea — of the work.
5) Using the lead as flashlight, I coded the raw material with structural notes — key words, phrases or acronyms that would become the narrative or thematic elements, perhaps even chapter titles.
6) I copied these key structural elements — such as Writing as Punishment or Publishing Student Writing — on a set of index cards.
7) I played with these cards for a long time, shuffling them, setting them down on the rug (where my dog Lance, trying to help, nosed them). I set them down in a variety of sequences until I found one order that offered the most promise.
8) I taped these cards to the wall of my home office. (For later projects, I used a bulletin board.)
9) I took my duplicate sets of notes and coded them according to my structural categories. I scissored them into parts and organized the parts into file folders that are identical to the titles on my “chapter” cards.
10) I stuck a dart (it may have been with a suction-cup tip) onto card #1, took out file #1, and began to draft.
In 1987, Heinemann Educational Books published "Free to Write: A Journalist Teaches Young Writers" by Roy Peter Clark. I cannot describe the pride and joy of holding the first copy of my first book in my hand. I have worked on more than a dozen book-length projects since then, and each one was produced through some form of the process I learned from McPhee and Howarth four decades ago. I pass it along to you. Go ahead, write your book. Welcome to the club.
* * *
The John McPhee Reader
Edited by William L. Howarth
New York: Vintage Books, 1977
Draft No. 4
By John McPhee
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017