Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process
John McPhee (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017)
John McPhee's New Yorker pieces are always interesting, even when his subjects might sound unpromising. He's far more interested in geology than I am, as well as the natural world in general. Who else could have got a whole book out of oranges? But in Draft No. 4, he comes to a topic I'm deeply interested in: how does he do it? McPhee has been teaching the writing of narrative non-fiction at Princeton for many years. In these essays, which have themselves appeared in the New Yorker, he both shares his own idiosyncratic processes and lays out some broadly applicable principles.
Some of what is peculiar to McPhee has to do with the tools he's had access to. He started with typewritten slips of paper laid out on a table and grouped by topic. When he switched to using a computer, he found a piece of data-manipulation software that he's now effectively the last user of; he has the inventor's phone number. The essay on structure presents some rather abstruse diagrams that McPhee used to wrangle various stories into shape, including a couple of tours de force where he devised the structure before he even knew what the subject was. This is not recommended for amateurs.
But there's plenty of useful advice, which acknowledges that, while we can't all be John McPhee, neither can he be us. On taking notes: "Use a voice recorder but maybe not as a first choice–more like a relief pitcher. Whatever you do, don't rely on memory." In fact, it may be to your advantage that someone you're interviewing is aware of it: "Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license." When your subject is aware of you as an audience, "You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit....If you don't seem to get something, the subject will probably help you get it."
When you've done your research, you're going to need a starting point. It's not a time to be too cute: "A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons, or whistles like a train but because it is absolute to what follows." A sound lead points the way through your structure. What kind of structure? "A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there." What to include? "It's an utterly subjective situation. I include what interests me and exclude what doesn't interest me. That may be a crude tool but it's the only one I have."
This is all a lot of work, and unquestionably daunting. "To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn't matter that something you've done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you." The point of doing (at least) four drafts is that the first draft may be a mess, but it can only be improved if it exists. If you're lucky, you're not completely alone. "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. Writers come in two principal categories–those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure–and they can all use help." Lucky for us, both The New Yorker and Farrar Straus and Giroux still employ editors, and long may they reign.
And here's the peroration, with which I couldn't agree more: "When am I done? I just know. I'm lucky that way. What I know is that I can't do any better; someone else might do better, but that's all I can do; so I call it done."
Email edition, August 3, 2018