Draft No. 4 is a master class on the writer’s craft. In a series of playful, expertly wrought essays, John McPhee shares insights he has gathered over his career and has refined while teaching at Princeton University, where he has nurtured some of the most esteemed writers of recent decades. McPhee offers definitive guidance in the decisions regarding arrangement, diction, and tone that shape nonfiction pieces, and he presents extracts from his work, subjecting them to wry scrutiny. In one essay, he considers the delicate art of getting sources to tell you what they might not otherwise reveal. In another, he discusses how to use flashback to place a bear encounter in a travel narrative while observing that “readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.” The result is a vivid depiction of the writing process, from reporting to drafting to revisingand revising, and revising.
Draft No. 4 is enriched by multiple diagrams and by personal anecdotes and charming reflections on the life of a writer. McPhee describes his enduring relationships with The New Yorker and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and recalls his early years at Time magazine. Throughout, Draft No. 4 is enlivened by his keen sense of writing as a way of being in the world.
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About the Author
Hometown:Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:March 8, 1931
Place of Birth:Princeton, New Jersey
Education:A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54
Read an Excerpt
In the late nineteen-sixties, I was working in rented space on Nassau Street up a flight of stairs and over Nathan Kasrel, Optometrist. Across the street was the main library of Princeton University. Across the hall was the Swedish Massage. Operated by an Austrian couple who were nearing retirement and had been there for decades, it was a legitimate business. They massaged everything from college football players to arthritic ancients, and they didn't give sex. This, however, was the era when massage became a sexual synonym, and most evenings — avoiding writing, looking down from my window on the passing scene — I would see men in business suits stop, hesitate, look around, and then move toward the glass door at the foot of the stairs. Eventually, the Austrians had to scrape the words "Swedish Massage" off the door, and replace them with a hanging sign they removed when they went home at night. Meanwhile, the men kept arriving at the top of the stairs, where neither door was marked. When they knocked on mine and I opened it, their faces fell dramatically as the busty Swede they expected turned into a short and bearded man.
In this context, I wrote three related pieces that became a book called Encounters with the Archdruid. To a bulletin board I had long since pinned a sheet of paper on which I had written, in large block letters, ABC/D. The letters represented the structure of a piece of writing, and when I put them on the wall I had no idea what the theme would be or who might be A or B or C, let alone the denominator D. They would be real people, certainly, and they would meet in real places, but everything else was initially abstract.
That is no way to start a writing project, let me tell you. You begin with a subject, gather material, and work your way to structure from there. You pile up volumes of notes and then figure out what you are going to do with them, not the other way around. In 1846, in Graham's Magazine, Edgar Allan Poe published an essay called "The Philosophy of Composition," in which he described the stages of thought through which he had conceived of and eventually written his poem "The Raven." The idea began in the abstract. He wanted to write something tonally sombre, sad, mournful, and saturated with melancholia, he knew not what. He thought it should be repetitive and have a one-word refrain. He asked himself which vowel would best serve the purpose. He chose the long "o." And what combining consonant, producibly doleful and lugubrious? He settled on "r." Vowel, consonant, "o," "r." Lore. Core. Door. Lenore. Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore." Actually, he said "nevermore" was the first such word that crossed his mind. How much cool truth there is in that essay is in the eye of the reader.
Nonetheless, I was doing something like it when I put ABC/D on the wall. For more than a decade, first at Time magazine and then at The New Yorker, I had been writing profiles — each, by definition, portraying an individual. At Time, I did countless sketches, long and short, of show-business people (Richard Burton, Sophia Loren, Barbra Streisand, et al.), and at The New Yorker even longer pieces, on an athlete, a headmaster, an art historian, an expert on wild food. After ten years of that, I was a little desperate to escalate, or at least get out of a groove that might turn into a rut.
To prepare a profile of an individual, the reporting endeavor looks something like this:
The X is the person you are principally going to talk to, spend time with, observe, and write about. The O's represent peripheral interviews with people who can shed light on the life and career of X — her friends, or his mother, old teachers, teammates, colleagues, employees, enemies, anybody at all, the more the better. Cumulatively, the O's provide triangulation — a way of checking facts one against another, and of eliminating apocrypha. Writers like Mark Singer and Brock Brower have said that you know you've done enough peripheral interviewing when you meet yourself coming the other way.
So, after those ten years and feeling squeezed in the form, I thought about doing a double profile, through a process like this:
In the resonance between the two sides, added dimension might develop. Maybe I would twice meet myself coming the other way. Or four times. Who could tell what might happen? In any case, one plus one should add up to more than two.
Then who? What two people? I thought of various combinations: an actor and a director, a pitcher and a manager, a dancer and a choreographer, a celebrated architect and a highly successful bullheaded client, 1 + 1 = 2.6. One day while I was still undecided, I happened to watch on CBS a men's semifinal in the first United States Open Tennis Championships. Two Americans — one of them twenty-five years old, the other twenty-four — were playing each other. One was white, the other black. One had grown up beside a playground in inner-city Richmond, the other on Wimbledon Road in Cleveland's wealthiest suburb. On their level are so few tennis players — and the places they compete are so organized nationally — that these two would have known each other since they were eleven years old. For something like three weeks, I kept thinking about that combination and its possibilities, and then decided to attempt a double portrait, letting the match itself contain and structure the story. I would not be able to do that without a copy of the CBS tape. In those days, tapes were not archived. They saw repeated use. The copying would have to be done as something called a kinescope — a sixteen-millimeter film shot from a television monitor. I asked William Shawn, The New Yorker's editor, if he would pay for the kinescope. "Very well," he said, sighing. "Go ahead." I called CBS. A guy there said, "You haven't called a minute too soon. That tape is scheduled to be erased this afternoon."
Called "Levels of the Game," the double profile worked out, and my aspirations went into a vaulting mode. If two made sense, why not four people in one complex piece of writing? That was when I put the block letters on the bulletin board. A, B, and C would be separate from one another, and each would interact with D, yes, but who were these people? As things would eventuate, the two projects I am describing — 1 + 1 = 2.6 and ABC/D — would be the only ones I would ever do that began as abstract expressions in search of subject matter. Quoth the raven, "Nevermore." Meanwhile, there was still no theme for the quadripartite profile. What to write about?
As I have noted in (among other places) the introduction to a book of excerpts called Outcroppings, a general question about any choice of subject is, Why choose that one over all other concurrent possibilities? Why does someone whose interest is to write about real people and real places choose certain people, certain places? For nonfiction projects, ideas are everywhere. They just go by in a ceaseless stream. Since you may take a month, or ten months, or several years to turn one idea into a piece of writing, what governs the choice? 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 per cent.
My father was a medical doctor who dealt with the injuries of Princeton University athletes. He also travelled the world as the chief physician of several United States Olympic teams. When I was very young, he spent summers as the physician at a boys' camp in Vermont. It was called Keewaydin and was a classroom of the woods. It specialized in canoe trips and taught ecology in our modern sense when the word was still connoting the root-and-shoot relations of communal plants. Aged six to twenty, I grew up there, ending as a leader of those trips. I played basketball and tennis there, and on my high-school teams at home, with absolutely no idea that I was building the shells of future pieces of writing. I dreamed all year of the trips in the wild, not imagining, of course, that they would eventually lead to the Brooks Range, to the Yukon-Tanana suspect terrain, to the shiplike ridges of Nevada and the Laramide mountains of Wyoming, or that they would lead to the rapids of the Grand Canyon in the company of C over D.
The environmental movement was in its early stages in the nineteen-sixties, and I decided that it would be the subject of ABC/D, pitting an environmentalist against three natural enemies. Easier said than arranged. I still had no inkling who these people might be. In fact, if their names had somehow magically appeared before me I would not have recognized any of them. For help, I went to Washington, where my friend John Kauffmann, with whom I had once taught school, worked for the National Park Service as a planner. Components of the park system that have resulted from his studies are, among others, Cape Cod National Seashore and Gates of the Arctic National Park. With several of his colleagues and friends, we developed lists of possibilities, first for D. We were looking for people in the category of the late Aldo Leopold, "the father of wildlife ecology," whose A Sand County Almanac had sold two million copies; but he would have been too reasonable, as were other leading environmentalists of the day, with a bristly exception. David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, was described by Kauffmann and company as a feisty take-no-prisoners unilateral thinker with tossing white hair like a Pentateuchal prophet. He had a phone number in area code 415. I called him up. Several days later, he called back to say that he would do it. Meanwhile, A, B, and C — the three natural enemies — were easier to identify than to choose, and, seeking no input whatever from Brower, we made a list of seventeen. Several months later, it had been reduced to three, and among them was Floyd Dominy, the United States Commissioner of Reclamation. He built very big Western dams, and he was a very tough Western guy. As a young county agent in Wyoming, he had helped ranchers through drought after drought, and he deeply believed in the impoundment of water. In congressional hearings, he had fought Dave Brower over potential dam sites from Arizona to Alaska, and now and again Brower had defeated him. Dominy looked upon Brower as a "selfish preservationist." In an early interview at Dominy's office in the Department of the Interior, he said to me, "Dave Brower hates my guts. Why? Because I've got guts." As that conversation would play out in the eventual piece, Dominy went on to say,
"I can't talk to Brower, because he's so God-damned ridiculous. I can't even reason with the man. I once debated with him in Chicago, and he was shaking with fear. Once, after a hearing on the Hill, I accused him of garbling facts, and he said, 'Anything is fair in love and war.' For Christ's sake. After another hearing one time, I told him he didn't know what he was talking about, and said I wished I could show him. I wished he would come with me to the Grand Canyon someday, and he said, 'Well, save some of it, and maybe I will.' I had a steer out on my farm in the Shenandoah reminded me of Dave Brower. Two years running, we couldn't get him into the truck to go to market. He was an independent bastard that nobody could corral. That son of a bitch got into that truck, busted that chute, and away he went. So I just fattened him up and butchered him right there on the farm. I shot him right in the head and butchered him myself. That's the only way I could get rid of the bastard."
"Commissioner," I said, "if Dave Brower gets into a rubber raft going down the Colorado River, will you get in it, too?"
"Hell, yes," he said. "Hell, yes."
C plus D, then — that was the general idea of Encounters with the Archdruid. With A and B (Charles Park, a mining geologist, and Charles Fraser, a resort developer), the four profiles in three parts worked out about as well as 1 + 1 had done. So, at risk of getting into an exponential pathology, I began to think of a sequence of six profiles in which a seventh party would appear in a minor way in the first, appear again in greater dimension in the second, grow further in the third, and further in the fourth, fifth, and sixth, always in subordinate ratio to the principal figure in each piece until becoming the central figure in a seventh and final profile. However, I backed away from this chimerical construction, just as I once backed away from Mr. Shawn after he asked me to stop by his office and suggested that I look into what it costs to run hospitals in New York from the first Band-Aid to the last bedpan. In Tina Brown's first year as editor of The New Yorker, she suggested that I shelve the piece I was working on, and write about murder in the Strait of Malacca. I demurred. Those were the only two times in half a century that The New Yorker has offered me an assignment.
Readers are not shy with suggestions, and the suggestions are often good but also closer to the passions of the reader than to this writer's. A sailor named Andy Chase wrote to me from the deck of a tanker, describing the grave decline of the U.S. Merchant Marine and detailing its present and historical importance. Yawn. Then he said he felt sure that I couldn't give a rat's ass for the fate of the Merchant Marine, but if I were to come out on the ocean with merchant mariners I would meet outspoken characters I would love to sketch. When he was ashore, I visited him at his home, in Maine, and found myself scribbling notes all day. Before long, he and I were visiting union halls in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, looking for a ship. After Looking for a Ship was published, a letter came from a truck driver, another complete stranger, who owned his own chemical tanker. He said, "If you can go out on the ocean with those people, you should come out on the road with us." I wrote back, "Tell me what you do." On a legal pad, while his tank was getting an interior wash, he wrote seven pages saying where he went with what. I corresponded with him for five years but didn't actually meet him until a day came when I got into his truck in Georgia. He said, right off, "Now, this may not work out. If it doesn't, I completely understand. Just tell me, and I'll drop you off at an airport anywhere on my route." I got out of his truck in Tacoma. In a lifetime of good suggestions arriving in the mail from ordinary readers, those are the only two I ever acted on.
Ideas are where you find them, and John Kauffmann, meanwhile, was feeding them to me as if he were making foie gras. John grew up in summers in northern New Hampshire in canoes, and we had so many common interests that ultimately about twenty per cent of my books would owe themselves in whole or in some part to his ideas — Encounters with the Archdruid, The Survival of the Bark Canoe, and Coming into the Country, among others. Even more so, however, new pieces can shoot up from other pieces, pursuing connections that run through the ground like rhizomes. Set one of these progressions in motion, and it will skein out in surprising ways, finally ending in some unexpected place.
In 1969, the year I spent with David Brower, he left his redwood house in Berkeley one day to fly upstate to Eureka and attend the dedication of Lady Bird Johnson Grove, in Redwood National Park. He took me with him. In the shadowy, columnar woods, we hiked in on a newly constructed driveway paved with redwood chips. Now and again, a slow black limousine overtook and passed us. Secret Service men in black suits walked beside the limos. At regular intervals along the way, red telephones stood up surreally above the ferns — landline desk telephones of the three-pound pushbutton vintage, unsheltered, each resting on a square redwood board supported by a redwood stake. While most attendees walked into the grove, the President of the United States and the immediate-past President of the United States and a future President of the United States and Senator George Murphy and Billy Graham and Lady Bird and Pat and Nancy rolled through in the limos on the chips. The ceremony took place on a redwood platform, elevating the presidents to a level unimpressive in the landscape. California's Governor Reagan spoke pleasant words of welcome and kept to himself his established opinion that if you've seen one redwood you've seen them all. Richard Nixon had much to say, much of which was lost on Lyndon Johnson, seated nodding on the platform and before long so sound asleep that his mouth fell open wider than a golf ball.
Excerpted from "Draft No. 4"
Copyright © 2017 John McPhee.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Editors & Publisher,
Frame of Reference,
Draft No. 4,
Also by John McPhee,
A Note About the Author,
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with John McPhee
I met John McPhee in the last year of my teens, when I was one of the lucky sixteen students he chose for the first year of his now- legendary Literature of Fact course at Princeton University. It had an enormous impact on my life. Two years later, in the summer between graduation and graduate school, McPhee hired me to tutor his youngest daughter, Martha in writing, of all things (she's now an accomplished novelist) and as "Continuity Editor" of Coming into the Country, helping to stitch eight New Yorker pieces about Alaska into one seamless book. In the decades since, we have kept in touch, though I have never written about him or his work. Draft No. 4, his new book of personal essays on the craft and teaching of writing, struck me as the perfect opportunity to break my self-imposed embargo.
McPhee, still an avid canoeist, fisherman, and bicyclist at eighty- six, has changed remarkably little in the forty-two years I have known him a short, trim, bearded man with bifocal glasses, neatly dressed in his usual uniform of khakis, a tucked-in button- down shirt, and crepe-soled shoes. We spent a lovely August day together, meeting in his turret office atop Princeton's geology building, which is accessed by taking an elevator as high as it goes before heading past a display case of staurolites, cordierites, and garnets to climb a narrow flight of stairs. McPhee's aerie is filled with multiple vintage work surfaces and rolling task chairs, its walls lined with world maps and shelves crammed with reference books, tidy stacks of back issues of The New Yorker, and books by his former students, including David Remnick, Robert Wright, Akhil Sharma, and Jennifer Weiner, to name just a few.
After the formal part of the interview was over, our conversation continued over lunch in the nearby Genomics Café. When it was time for me to catch my train back to New York, McPhee drove me to Princeton Junction. As we passed under the elegant new Streicker Bridge spanning Washington Road, he told me about one of his recent students, who turned out to be the granddaughter of David Billington, a Princeton engineering professor whose passion for bridges led him to recruit renowned Swiss engineer Christian Menn for the project. Billington's granddaughter described the structure beautifully for one of McPhee's course assignments, and his delight in the serendipitous link struck me as emblematic of his enthusiasm for teaching and his deep connection with his students, unabated over the years.
The following is an edited version of our extensive interview, but McPhee's diction, naturally free of ums or other verbal tics except for the and so on, and so forths he shares with his late publisher and friend, Roger Straus – required very few tweaks in its translation to the page. Heller McAlpin
The Barnes & Noble Review: What I wanted to start with is this: With this new book, we're finally getting the "I" behind the eye. Not finally we've actually seen it before, most notably with the personal essays in Silk Parachute. But now, with Draft No. 4, you, who in more than thirty books have made an art of keeping yourself, by your own professed choice, "with Kafka on the ceiling," are coming down.
John McPhee: Perforce.
BNR: And readers are loving it. What precipitated the change? JMcP: Time. I mean, it's a function of time. The pieces in this book were written as a result of teaching for forty-some years. So I'm just older, and as I get older and write pieces based on my experience teaching and so forth, the first-person pronoun comes in more. My attitude about the first-person pronoun in pieces of writing was always that it was perfectly fine to use it. You didn't have to say, "A reporter got into the car." But it would be employed only where really necessary. And in one piece I did, the first-person pronoun "I" appeared once in 60,000 words.
BNR: Which piece is that?
JMcP: The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed. I had to be there, because at the end of this piece about an experimental aircraft, one of the engineers there got into a Cessna to fly up into the air beside the experimental aircraft, at 1,000–2,000 feet and I got into the Cessna with him. So what was I going to say? "A reporter from the New Yorker got into . . . "
So that was the one "I" in it, and my editor, Robert Bingham, said, "You have used the personal pronoun once in this whole piece. You have to use it more than that." And he kept insisting. So I looked through the whole piece, and I found a scene in which a guy in an Esso station, as they were called then, was banging on a muffler, and I said that I was standing there watching him. And so there were two in The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed.
But that was an attitude that was born out of an idea that I think the writer ought to keep himself off the scene. It's not about the writer. It's about the subject. And so, writers that interpose themselves between the reader and the subject were not models that I wish to follow. So, consequently, in all the early decades of my writing for the New Yorker, I didn't say "I." But when I get to a point in life where I am about 100 years old and I am summarizing stuff that I talked about to people, then there's no alternative. That's why there's so many more, and this parabola you describe occurred.
BNR: Is this as close, would you say, to a memoir . . .
JMcP: It's as close as I would ever want to get. A friend of mine who read a bound galley wrote me a note and said, "You have written an autobiography here, along with everything else," and that's enough of an autobiography forget it.
BNR: It's very wily. You've actually slyly distilled your life experience through your teaching and your writing . . .
JMcP: To the extent that it was necessary in those essays.
BNR: Among the dedicatees of Draft No. 4 are "half a thousand Princeton students."
BNR: " . . . who have heard it all before." Yes, I was one of the lucky first-round picks. Looking back, I am still amazed at how fully formed the course was right off the bat. You came in as a five-tool teacher, as they say in baseball.
JMcP: As a what?
BNR: Five-tool teacher. You know what a five-tool player is in baseball? They've got it all. They can hit, they can field the ball, they can throw, they can run . . . You came in that way. How did you do it?
JMcP: I certainly didn't feel that.
BNR: No? Did you feel you were winging it?
JMcP: No. What happened was . . . there's a whole sequence of stuff, and there's a lot more detail than you might want, but there's a lot of humor in it. Universities do things a year and a half in advance, and [after another journalist quit just before Christmas in 1974], here they are, they've got one month to go desperate. I happened to be across the street, in my office over a hardware store and an optometrist, working on my pieces. They called me up and asked me if I would substitute, if I would fill in for that spring semester. I said yes without hesitation. I believe that it was a factor of time. If it had happened X years earlier, I wouldn't have done it, because I would have been too anxious to keep every effort going toward my writing. But I sensed that it would be a good idea, and I said yes right off the bat. Then they asked me to come back, and I again said yes, and I'm still there. I'm an anomaly in this group. Most of them come in for one semester.
Anyway, that's how it started. But I feel this about it: I've never written a line of anything of mine during the semester that I'm teaching, but I think I have written more over the decades in the New Yorker and so on, than I would have had I not been teaching. Because I think that looking over the shoulder of writing students and dealing with them is both very germane to the writing world, but it doesn't have the same kind of pressure as my own writing. So I'm getting a little vacation from my own writing. It's sort of like crop rotation in agronomy. Whatever it is, I have no way to prove this, but I think the list of books that I've published would be shorter were I not teaching.
BNR: Your scouting ability, though . . . to use another baseball metaphor. The number of your former students who have gone on to fill countless inches of column space, library shelves, mastheads, strikes me as just phenomenal. How did you do it?
JMcP: They came to Princeton interested in writing. They were chosen by the Admission Office on the basis of the essays they wrote. They are self-selected. They are not selected so much by me. They are self-selected. They come here, they hear about this course that I teach, and they apply to it with a piece of writing. There's something in the neighborhood of sixty to seventy people who apply for the course, and because the course works best with sixteen, and that's what it is, I have the very, very difficult task of choosing the class.
So, what a big surprise that some of them go on and write. You think if David Remnick had never heard of me or my class, he wouldn't be doing exactly what he's doing? And so would you, and so . . .
BNR: I think you've left your imprint on a lot of writers. Very few teachers are teachers for life. I mean, I've taken a lot of writing classes. Your lasting influence is just extraordinary. But to look at the subject from another angle: What have you learned from your students over the years?
JMcP: A lot. I'm really interested in what they write. The thing is that they do their set pieces and they do their free-choice pieces, and they are picking their own subjects, and their subjects really range widely. I think that, more to the point, talking to them individually about their pieces of writing that's the core of the course. Talking to them individually must sharpen my sense of the craft. Figuring out what to say to a student is in part figuring out what to say to myself about this thing. And this book is the result of that. It wouldn't exist without that course.
BNR: Before we get to the book: Another question about your course: When did the Literature of Fact morph into Creative Nonfiction?
JMcP: The Literature of Fact was the name of the 440 course, so-called, when I came in. When I changed the course in 2002, I think, I started to teach all sophomores, and I've taught all sophomores ever since, I had to think up a new title for a course called 240. So I took the name of a publication from the University of Pittsburgh, a magazine called Creative Nonfiction. Lee Gutkind, the editor, was a friend of mine, and I had to name the course. I named it Creative Nonfiction.
BNR: Did you consider Narrative Nonfiction or . . .
JMcP: No. I didn't think of anything else. I didn't particularly want to do the name, but I had to.
BNR: What does "creative nonfiction" mean, anyway? Isn't it a dangerous phrase, given our era of alternate facts and fake news?
JMcP: The answer to that is in the book. It's a whole paragraph. I would submit that. That question is such a big one that I tried to articulate it, and I do think that it does articulate it.
[Here is part of the paragraph from Draft No. 4 that McPhee later sent me in an email: "The title asks an obvious question: What is creative about nonfiction? It takes a whole semester to try to answer that, but here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have."]
BNR: Yes, you do remind your students and your readers many times: You're writing nonfiction, you're not making things up. Which makes me think of some of the other mantras that students and readers are sure to remember: "Writing is selection." "A thousand details add up to one impression." "It takes as long as it takes." For me, a valuable takeaway was that it isn't cheating to use the dictionary by all means, use the dictionary to find just the right word.
JMcP: Oh, gracious, yes.
BNR: My favorite is the American Heritage Fourth Edition. On a desert island, that's what I'd take. What about you?
JMcP: Why not? Here in my office there's the OED. There's the Web-2, the unabridged one, and there's a bunch of dictionaries over there on the other side of the room. While we're at it, and I'm describing the bookshelves in my office at Princeton, take a look up there at the books where all the family photographs are. You see? That shelf at the end. Those books. Then, the books behind you on your left on a much larger shelf. Every one of those books was written by a former student. The ones you're looking at right now, plus the ones over there. They send them to me, and I'm very appreciative of the gift. But that is not an attempt to collect them all.
BNR: Let's move on to structure, the key that unlocks the writing process for you. I don't want to get tangled in it, but back in 1975 you told us: "If you've ever seen a bowl of spaghetti, you've seen the various patterns that a writer's path can take." Over the years, you've developed a remarkable approach to imposing order on that tangle of paths, finding the order. You write about this at quite some length in the first chapter of this book.
JMcP [rummaging through a file drawer]: I'm looking for something. The spaghetti comes from a cartoon, an the cartoon was given to me by Alan Williams. Actually, no, he didn't give me the cartoon. It's two different things. First of all, Alan Williams told me that Elisabeth Sifton, I think, said to him . . . gave him a manuscript (you know, at Viking, when they were both working there), and said to him, "Look this over; it has the structure of a bowl of spaghetti." See, this is a line from Elisabeth Sifton to Alan Williams, and I would have quoted it. Subsequently, I've come across a cartoon which expresses the same thought. I give it every year to my students.
BNR: Ha! That's amazing that you can recall its source.
JMcP: It's amazing you remember it, let alone . . . BNR: Yes, I remembered that. But what I couldn't find, to my total frustration. I have no idea what I submitted to you to apply to your class. And, my papers with your notations on them. I found photocopies of three profiles I'd written for you, but none of the other work.
JMcP: You don't know where they are? Other people have saved them, like Pete Hessler. He introduced me once in Santa Fe to an audience, and he rolled out all these things I'd written about his pieces in the margins. It was really funny.
You know, I looked at the kids who were in your class, and to my pleasure and surprise, a face came right up in front of me with each name.
BNR: To get back to Draft No. 4, in the course of these essays, you refer to quite a number of your other books. I counted fifteen and even more articles. And you make this comment: "I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe 20 or 30 years, and then put a checkmark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than 90%."
BNR: Geology included?
JMcP: Yes. Most definitely. Before college? Oh, absolutely. Because the geology was the result of a course at Deerfield. A full-year course taught by Frank Conklin. What I didn't know at the time . . . When I got into the long geology project later on, I came to realize that the course at Deerfield was almost wholly geomorphology, which makes sense. I got into it as a writer years later in a kind of naive way. Once you bite off a little of that, you've got to do it all. I was very much over my head for a long time. I made notes on field trips with geologists that I did not understand at all. I just scribbled down the notes, and I was totally in the dark. Then a year later, I'd read those notes, and understood them all. It was a peculiar experience.
BNR: What are the exceptions? The 10 percent?
JMcP: Oh, I can tell you that. Here's one that gives an example of the 10 percent best. I was on a tennis court in Rhode Island, returning from northern New England, at an old roommate's place, and he and I were in a tennis match with the club pro, so- called, and another guy. We played doubles. Then the other guy there asked me what I do, "Who are you? What do you do?" and everything else. I said, "I write nonfiction pieces for the New Yorker." The long and the short, what I'm getting at, is that the result of that conversation is a book called The Curve of Binding Energy. This is not what I was interested in when I was fifteen years old, or had ever in any way contemplated before that tennis game, when he told me all this stuff . . . I happened to have finished a piece in the weeks before that vacation, and I went back to New York, and I told William Shawn about this conversation, and soon I was in UVA law school talking to Mason Woolrich, and so on and so forth.
BNR: Rereading some of your work over the past few weeks, certain themes and trends jump out at me. Transportation, for one. But also, I guess I had never really thought of you as a naturalist, or part of that New Yorker tradition of writing about saving our planet, or man's relation to our planet books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Bill McKibben's The End of Nature. That definitely comes out in your writings about Camp Keewaydin and The Survival of the Bark Canoe.
JMcP: Keewaydin is the source of all that. I went there when I was six years old, and I spent ten years as a camper, and then later on three years on the staff there. We were in the woods on canoe trips. We learned many trees, and the rocks, and the ferns, and so on and so forth.
I would not call myself in any sense a naturalist. But the interest in those subjects, and then being in the outdoors, being in a canoe somewhere, all came from Keewaydin. I've been described as an environmental writer. That's where it came from. It didn't come from ecology courses in college or something like that. It came from there.
BNR: Do you have a favorite among your books?
BNR: A least favorite?
JMcP: No. Not at all. Not a bit. I've often said, you know, it's like your kids. Whatever you work on, you're so totally involved in that piece from beginning to end, and you do the best job on it you can possibly do, and then you move on and . . . Retrospectively, this commitment to that piece remains. It's true every time. You could answer the question a different way: "Yeah, the last thing I did."
BNR: How much rereading of your work do you do later, or did you do for Draft No.4?
JMcP: If necessary, I do it. But it isn't always necessary. And sometimes, huge periods of time go by, and something happens that will send me back to read a thing. I read my work in progress, after the second draft, to Yolanda [McPhee's wife], and I also read it to Gordon Gund. Gordon Gund is a fantastic listener. He is blind. He is here in Princeton. He's a fishing companion. He's a helluva great fisherman with a fly rod! He's an athlete. And he makes up for sight with the other senses and one of them is listening. He's really a great listener. What was the question that started us off on this?
BNR: About rereading your work.
JMcP: Once in a while, conversation with Gordon has turned up something, like The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed. He used to be a pilot of Cessnas. It will turn up something like that, and then I'll read it to him, see. So there have been a number of things that I have read to Gordon that I otherwise wouldn't have been rereading that don't relate to trying to study something for this book or whatever.
BNR: And what's your reaction when you reread something you've written long ago Do you go, "Wow!" Good? Bad?
JMcP: Fortunately, it has not been an unpleasant experience.
BNR: That's what I'm getting at.
JMcP: That's really true. I think that's a factor of having gone over it so many times in so many ways, back when it was first published, and also the fact that I didn't get to be a staff writer at the New Yorker until I was thirty-three years old. A whole lot of writing goes by where you're growing as a writer. Writers grow slowly. John Updike is an extremely unusual thing, and no one should compare themself to John Updike, asking, "Why haven't I become a famous writer at twenty-one?" Well, because almost nobody does, and forget John Updike. Writers grow very, very slowly.
BNR: Tangential to this, though, when you say it has not been an unpleasant experience, my sense is that you never released any book that was half-baked. It takes as long as it takes, and they were done.
JMcP: "It takes as long as it takes." Quote: William Shawn.
BNR: Right. But they were truly finished. I review a lot of books that could use several more drafts.
JMcP: My mother used to say to me, "You've been doing that for months. When are you going to finish?" My mother proofread everything as long as she lived.
BNR: Did she?
JMcP: Yes. I mean, she wasn't the only proofreader. But she did read every galley for as long as she lived. How old was she when she died? One hundred.
BNR: That's pretty spectacular.
JMcP: Pretty good.
BNR: You capture her well in the title piece in Silk Parachute and that enchanting toy she bought you at LaGuardia. Your career has been so unusual in so many ways, and it was even back in 1975. But when you tell your students about it now . . . writing for mainly one publication, one book publisher, long-form, every book continuously in print, no assignments, your own ideas . . .
JMcP: It's all true.
BNR: No firm deadlines until it's in the publication chute.
JMP: Roger Straus used to ask me, "When are you going to finish that thing?" I never heard that from the New Yorker, from Shawn or anybody. Never. But Roger says, "When are you going to . . . " Roger Straus was sui generis.
BNR: I'll never forget him showing up at class in that beautiful pinstriped suit, and the shocking string of profanity that came out of his mouth which you had warned us about. He struck me as a literary gangster. But then what came out of his publishing house were the most beautiful books imaginable.
JMcP: He was amazing. You were 1975, so that was Roger's first visit to the class. And he visited the class all the way until he couldn't. He came down here with cancer, and wincing with pain, and yet he sat at the end of the table and talked about Solzhenitsyn.
BNR: What do you advise your students in terms of seeking a similar autonomy? Are books their best bet? Blogs?
JMcP: I think books are their best bet. As far as I can tell - - but this is a world in which you can't really pronounce about it, because it's so unclear and so shifting. But I don't think books are going to go away, and so I think that any young writer should have in the back of her mind the idea that one day there will be a book, and that it may not be tomorrow, and it doesn't need to be tomorrow, but that what you do as a writer should sort of be grist to that mill.
The Internet certainly fits. Blogs. But the closer you can get to an editor, to some really good reactor to what you're doing, the better. A really good editor is not somebody who dicks around, who is messing with your prose. It's somebody who is talking to you about your ideas and your work, and who reads your thing and talks to you about it. I mean, it's an interlocutor on that level, a sounding board. That's what a great editor is. Not a copy editor, I mean a line editor, a person who changes one word to another; suggests, yes, but changes, no. To what extent the good editor sort of thing exists on the Internet, I'm not sure. But where it is, is where young writers ought to gravitate in my view.
Above all, writing is what teaches writing. The volume of writing, of what you do, is what improves you as a writer, and that book is out there somewhere, and all that is attainable, but there's one more thing. How do you pay for it? This is a huge thing. Do you need a patron? Are you going to be paid for it? The number of publications has shrunk quite a bit, the ones that pay well. So it may be a little harder for writers to grow. I don't have a good solution to that at all. I don't think anybody does right now.
BNR: Draft No. 4 covers various aspects of the reporter's trade, including interviewing. You famously have always said you'd rather watch people than interview them face-to-face. How much prep and research do you do in advance of an interview or reporting expedition?
JMcP: My basic reply to the question is: Enough to be polite. I was interviewed by somebody once who seriously asked me what geology was. How do you define geology? Come on. I mean, a little help here. But I do very little. I do enough to be polite, I hope. But I'm learning on the job, and I'm not trying to get it all in one morning.
BNR: So, typically, after your canoe trips, or your cross- country gigs in a truck, you'll go back and research about the trucking industry or . . .
JMcP: Yes, to some extent.
BNR: . . . fill in the gaps?
JMcP: But the thing is, along the way you learn about what you need to know. So there's a certain amount of looking up afterward. Also, on the long distance . . . like the truck trip, I picked up stuff on the way at truck stops, publications about hazmats and things like that, that would be there. Because the truck driver whom I was with twenty-four hours a day from one coast to another, was talking to me all the time, and then something would come up, and I'd go, "Oh, I should see that," and then we'd go find it. You collect stuff as you go along and read it. You go home with a suitcase full of reading material.
BNR: You have one line that I absolutely loved: "Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license." As opposed to trying to sneak into a restroom to jot down notes.
JMcP: I'm in.
BNR: One thing I didn't see in Draft No. 4 that made a big impression on me in your class was your warning us against writing that smelled of research. Am I rightly attributing that olfactory sensitivity to you?
JMcP: I have a vague memory of that. It's not something I say every year. This may be where it came up. It probably is. Every year, including the year that you were in the class, the students do a set piece, and the set piece is defined as part of a much longer piece, say a book, in which you pause at some point to go into a given subject in some depth, and so you have to get into it in a natural way, and then out of it as it is part of the overall composition, which is a book. So the example I give is from The Survival of the Bark Canoe I'm on a canoe trip through the north Maine woods, and my eye is arrested in one campsite by a loon that's sitting in the water out there. The loon completely symbolizes the entire world around us. It is the northern forest's talisman. So I go into a lengthy set piece, about two to two and a half pages, about loons. So I read them the piece on loons. Then they go off and pick up their own set pieces.
Well, the point I try to make with them is that you don't want to sound like an encyclopedia or something all of a sudden. Here you are writing your book, and everything is going fine in your book, and now you suddenly sound like, you know, the Britannica. Well, avoid that. Avoid the smell of research. I'm sure that's the context in which it came up.
BNR: That's how I took it.
JMcP: I don't actually use that line any more. But I tell them the same thing.
BNR: Another line that stands out: "Writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon." I definitely get the sense that you have fun.
JMcP: That's what Jenny [his daughter] says I do. Tell me when it happens. No, it does happen. I'll tell you exactly when it happens, is after the first draft. I'm a different person after the first draft. But that first draft might take a year. So I'm a lousy person the whole year. But when I've got that first draft completely written, and therefore can start over again and look through it, a different person is starting over again and looking through it.
BNR: After your years at Time, you seem to have grown averse to puns.
BNR: But that doesn't cut out wordplay or things like your fun with odobene and tetragrammatonic mustaches. JMcP: Oh, heck, no.
BNR: Let's talk about Greening [an exercise that involves cutting excess words with a green pencil]. Reading about Greening in this book reminded me of how much fun that was, how challenging your examples were. I did that with my kids when they were . . .
JMcP: Did you? You know, I stopped doing that in my class, and then I told a former student that I had stopped doing it, and that former student, whoever it was, told me, "That's a huge mistake; don't deprive them of Greening." So I've done Greening ever since.
BNR: The Gettysburg Address was just . . .
JMcP: The Gettysburg Address is very greenable.
BNR: And then there was a favorite passage of yours from Joseph Conrad.
JMcP: That's still in there. There's about ten items. But they change. I also always give one of their own pieces in the Greening packet.
BNR: About "ending," versus "finishing": You make it clear that the first draft is the hardest, and that the revisions and subsequent drafts become progressively more pleasurable, and as for when it's fully cooked you write, "I just know, and I can't do any better." Do you ever run out of patience or time? Eagerness to move on to a next project? Or, conversely, unwillingness to let go?
JMcP: Not really in either case. The unwillingness to let go is something that I'm much aware of in reading other writers. And I've always felt very lucky, that when the time came that I thought, "That's it; I can't do any better" not that it can't be better, but that I can't do any better I'm lucky to reach that point. Fortunately, when I am finished, I really feel that I am finished, I am done.
BNR: How about eagerness to move on?
JMcP: I felt useful deadline pressure that does not come from the New Yorker. They just don't . . . I was about to say "They don't give a damn," but they do give a damn. But nobody has ever put any pressure on me to finish anything. Whereas if you are trying to finance a family and everything else, that's where the deadlines come from. You know you have to finish it, and then something else is coming along. You've got something you really want to do in July, so you tend to just be working longer hours and pressing harder at it to finish by the end of June. I had a lot of experiences like that self-generated deadlines.
BNR: Which requires a measure of discipline and drive. Are there any pieces where you bailed partway?
JMcP: There have been pieces where I gave up ideas I was working on when I was doing the research. But once you get an investment in the writing, you are caught. Because for one thing, it all feels bad the whole first draft. So if you quit, you'd quit the next time. You'd quit the next time after that. So once a piece of writing gets started, I've never quit.
BNR: This is a more standard interview question: What have you read lately that you've liked? Do you prefer new books? Going back to classics? Fiction? Nonfiction?
JMcP: I read miscellaneously in spades. I don't read, you know, with some project in mind. If I'm working on something, I read for that project sure. But the reading I do at my nightstand and in my car I listen to books a lot is very miscellaneous. There's a book in my car right now about Hawaii. Why? Because I'm going to a family gathering in Hawaii next month. Before that, the book was Lolita. Why? Because Pat Moran, in a writing program here at Princeton, told me that Jeremy Irons is fantastic reading Lolita. I once read some of Lolita and put it down and didn't finish the book. That's decades ago, fifty years ago. So I got Jeremy Irons reading it. Jeremy Irons is really fun.
I never read Speak, Memory, and I've got it now. It's next after this Hawaii thing. It's just totally miscellaneous. If I got all the books that I've read in the past year, many of which I've listened to, you would see how utterly miscellaneous they are. I listened to the whole of Don Quixote. It was a lot of fun.
BNR: It occurs to me that you could be kept busy pretty much full time reading your former students' and colleagues' work.
JMP: That's for sure. The book I'm reading right now is called The Epic City by Kushanava Choudhury, who was in my class in 1999. He grew up in Highland Park, fifteen miles from here, but his forebears were from Calcutta. The Epic City is Calcutta, and it is a great book! It's not a good book it's a great book. It's funny. The writing is so good. Anyway, I'm reading it right now. So I'm filled with enthusiasm for Kusha's book.
BNR: All four of your daughters have published books, right? Two are novelists.
JMcP: That's true.
BNR: At what point in the process do you see their work? How does that go?
JMcP: It has varied through time. I see it when it's done. I'm also, sometimes, asked to comment on them, or proofread, the way my mother did for me.
BNR: Some of the fiction has cut close to home. Isn't it tough to not say anything?
JMcP: It's not tough. It's not difficult. It's their book. It's her book, whoever it is.
BNR: As a critic, I can't not ask: Do you read reviews of your books? Of your daughters' and friends' books? Other reviews?
JMcP: I would read any review of my daughters' and friends' books that I happen to see, or be sent. Reviews of my own books are . . . What I've almost always asked Farrar Straus to do is to collect the reviews and then send them to me all at once, a few months after, so I can glance at them. But I don't really hugely look forward to them, positive or negative. I could get really upset about a review, so that's why I don't want to look at them.
BNR: Do you have any new pieces in the pipeline?
JMcP: I have a couple of new pieces I'm working on. There are also short things. However, I have this book and another book a year from now, that's all ready to go, and given all of that, I'm spending more time on current books right now than I am on doing pieces. But I'll get back to the pieces.
BNR: What's the book a year from now?
JMP: It's called The Patch, and it's a collection. "The Patch" is a piece about my father that was in the New Yorker after my last collection. So, like Silk Parachute, the title piece happens to be about one of my parents.
BNR: Are there a number of personal essays in the book? JMcP: Yes. I mean, anyway, they're not all personal. They're just all pieces that I've done since the last collection of pieces.
BNR: Are there any writing projects you regret not having gotten to yet, or that you're really itching to get to?
JMcP: Ideas for nonfiction writing pieces are vol-u- minous. They go by all the time. But I get to a lot of things now where I think, "I probably don't have time to do that," and won't, and I think that would make a good subject for somebody else. That happens with increasing frequency at the age of eighty- six.
BNR: Yet, you're increasing the teaching, you said, at least for now.
JMcP: Did I say I was increasing it?
BNR: Yes. Instead of once every third semester . . .
JMcP: Right. I teach every year. That's true. In part because I think I've got to keep the rhythm going. If I took off for a year and a half or whatever it would be, I might find it hard to get back to it. So I feel all prepped up for the next class by the last one. The 2017 classes are kicking me forward into the 2018 class. But I think the students do a lot for me that maybe medicine can't! I really think that . . . There's one kid after another, coming in here, talking to me, and they're all so different, and they're very interesting.
BNR: Anything else you want to say on tape before I turn it off?
JMcP: I don't think so. You were asking me what I did beforehand to prepare an interview, and I don't do much and you have done so much very careful planning. I am very impressed and also a little sheepish.
BNR: Though we haven't covered the waterfront. We haven't even talked about canoes and kayaking. I'm saving that for lunch.
September 14, 2017