Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Writers on Writing - John McPhee

Five years ago, I submitted a column “Writers on Writing” which led with quotes from famous writers and closed with a bit of background on how I came to be a nonfiction writer. Two of the quotes: “We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.” (Somerset Maugham) and “I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter.” (James Michener)

And again: When I am asked "Why do you write?" I answer "It's a disease." I have heard the same answer for people in the restaurant or acting industries. These are professions rife with hardship, rejection and failure. The people who persevere are those who cannot imagine doing anything else.

Early on, I was also asked by an editor of this newspaper if my column should have a photo of me. I replied that my preference was “No.” And when asked why, I replied “Because it’s not about me.” That is perhaps half-true. Whether “I” appears in my columns (about once a year), what I choose to write about is directed by my curiosity, my knowledge and my skills. So, history – yes, nature – yes, science – yes, people – not so much. My style is my style: parenthetical asides, alliteration, long sentences and sentence fragments, high school reading level, etc. Thus, I am in my columns even when “I” is not.  

It helps tremendously to have as touchstones writers who have excelled in what John McPhee calls “Creative Nonfiction.” Writing nonfiction, I learned early, is a matter of bricks and mortar. The bricks are the facts and the mortar the story tying the facts together. The craft is in managing the right balance of the two. If you, reader, aspire to creative nonfiction, consider the books “The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction” (2008) and “Writing Creative Nonfiction” (2001).

A dividing line – not an absolute requirement for being a creative nonfictionist – is whether the author is part of the story, meaning how much is “The…” and how much is “I…” Revisiting Annie Dillard, she is a LOT of “I.” Bill Bryson is a lot of “I.” Barry Lopez has some “I” is his writing, as does John McPhee. McPhee colors his work by incorporating his interactions with the people who live and work and play in the places he is writing about.

In contrast, as a biographer, Robert A. Caro, age 86, hews to a minimum of 1,000 words a day without an “I” ever being launched from his typewriter. It helps, I suppose, to choose to write about Lyndon B. Johnson after he was dead, as in no recounting interviews with the subject. Caro did, however, rent a house for three years in Texas Hill Country, where LBJ grew up and entered politics, the better to interview people who had known LBJ when he was young, and get a sense of Texas life. The first LBJ volume was published in 1982. That and the three published since then averaged more than 800 pages. As of late 2021 Caro was hundreds of pages into book five, now writing about President Johnson and the Vietnam War. He still hopes to visit Vietnam as part of his research. Writers who get too deep into researching their topics are said to be “Caro-esque.”

John McPhee (age 79 years)
Why McPhee in particular? Firstly, he is 90 years old and has been writing professionally for 70 years! Initially for Time magazine, then The New Yorker, from which his nonfiction has distilled into 32 books. Secondly, since 1974 he has been the Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University (his alma mater), where every spring he teaches a course named “Creative Nonfiction” to a class limited to 16 students. His essays on teaching writing are gathered in a 2017 book “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.”  

One essay: “FRAME OF REFERENCE: To illuminate—or to irritate?” is worth revisiting now and then. In a piece of writing, its frame of reference are the things and people you choose to allude to in order to advance its comprehensibility. Write that someone has the frenetic energy of Tom Cruise doing his own stunts and you have leaned heavily on the readers’ awareness of the movie industry in general and Tom in particular [Cruise will be 60 in July. He does all his own stunts.] That’s fine, for now, but write that someone has the gravitas of Richard Burton and you likely lost readers on two counts: gravitas? Burton?? Only once in all my columns has an editor called me on vocabulary: “yclept.” My response was “Keep it – they can look it up.”

As for paragraph four: “touchstones.” Was context enough, or were you moved to look it up? I was familiar with its use as a metaphor, synonyms criterion, gauge or yardstick, but surprised to learn that the word also applies to an actual precious metals assaying tool.

A bit more on writers writing about writing: Supposedly, Ernest Hemingway said “The first draft of anything is s___.” And mythology has it that Hemingway, challenged to tell a story in six words, came back with "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." True or not, it has spawned an entire industry of six-word stories. One of my favorites: “Alzheimer’s: meeting new people every day.”

Mark mentioned that in addition to 12 years of toiling for the Beacon-Villager, from 1978-80 he had a weekly column for the Azalea City News (Mobile, AL), writing restaurant reviews, recipe columns and health articles.  

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