When I’m thrashing through the brambles of a first draft, no story in sight, I have one reliable lifeline. WWJMD? What would John McPhee do to get himself out of this #%&! mess?
This, after all, is the guy who found fascinating stories in citrus cultivation. And geology. And Switzerland! Some of his writing is now two generations old, and not, shall we say, of smartphone-friendly lengths. But his work holds up. He knows what readers don’t know they want to know, and he knows how to tell them about it. Those gifts don’t expire.
There are a lot of answers to WWJMD, and a lot of places to find them. You can read his books and pore over The New Yorker archives. You can get hold of the charming and instructive Paris Review interview by his former Princeton student, MacArthur-award-winning journalist Peter Hessler. Or, best of all, you can hear from the man himself.
McPhee appeared at the University of Colorado-Boulder in late October as a guest of the Center of the American West. He read from a forthcoming New Yorker piece (just out today) about the composition of some of the profiles he’s written for the magazine. He then spoke with Western historian Patty Limerick, and took questions from the audience. At 80, he still talks much like he writes — in full, well-tuned paragraphs. Our friends at The Open Notebook will post a more complete transcript later this week, but for now, here are a few excerpts.
It didn’t occur to me when I started writing for The New Yorker that it wasn’t just a good idea to write about this that and the other thing. But I did run into some umbrage from other writers and stuff like that along the way. Not badly, though. [Then-editor William] Shawn said one time, though, “You know, there are some problems in managing you,” because of the variety of themes.
On the importance of structure:
I had a teacher in Princeton High School, Mrs. McKee, who had us write three pieces of writing a week. She had us get up and read them to the other kids, who would wad up paper and throw it at us when we were doing our reading.
We had a lot of fun in that class. We could write anything, fiction, non-fiction, poetry. Whatever it was, the structure had to be defended. You had to turn in, with each piece, a structural presentation, an outline, or a doodle of some sort that showed that you were thinking about the anatomy of the piece when you were writing it. And so, every single Princeton kid that I’ve ever taught has turned in every piece with a structural outline. But I picked that up in 10th grade, or 9th grade. She was a very influential teacher.
Audience question: I was told at one point that you would put the whole book on a series of 3-by-5 cards and organize it that way. Is that accurate, and if so do you still do that?
Yes. It’s the whole book in the sense that I’ve reduced the notes to little things like airport codes. It means something to me and they relate to components of the story. On the 3-by-5 card there’s nothing more than one word, or half a word, but I know what it relates to. It relates to a whole body of stuff. Then I move the cards around to see where I’m going to find a good structure, a legitimate structure.
On getting good quote:
I’m just listening. Tons of stuff streams by, and I’m obviously not using 100 percent of it, but I do use a tape recorder if I have to. I never try to remember later what they said. There have been writers writing non-fiction who claim that they went home at night and wrote it down. I don’t do that. I scribble constantly. If I’m climbing up the North Cascades, I have a notebook in my hand, trying to keep my balance, and I’m scribbling, scribbling, because I much prefer to scribble in the notebooks than to transcribe endless tape.
But if you have 15 Appalachian geologists of the first rank standing around some outcrop, arguing about exotic terrains in Vermont, the language is unbelievable. I take out a tape recorder and put it on the outcrop. And then I go through the whole process with the thing with the foot treadle and all that to type up the taped stuff. But my first go is a notebook.
On the pleasure of research, and the pain of writing:
There’s a big difference between riding a coal train through Kansas and Nebraska and trying to write. Writing is a suspension of life. I believe that so-called writer’s block is something that any writer is going to experience every day, but in a minor way. You break through some kind of membrane, and then you go into another world. Time really goes fast in there, but it is hard as can be to get there, and it frightens me. It frightens Joan Didion. She talks about the “low dread” she feels looking across the room at the door of her study. When she’s sitting somewhere, not writing, and she looks and sees that door, she experiences the low dread. Oh boy, do I know what that means. Getting past it is just a daily thing. It’s not there when you’re riding around in a train, but it sure is when you’re trying to write about riding around in a train.
Top photo credit: iStockphoto.