John McPhee is one those writers with whom I feel I am never wasting a moment when I read him. Time spent with him is always a good investment. I first heard his name when I was sitting in a dining room on a cruise ship somewhere on our way to Alaska from San Francisco. My wife and I were sharing a breakfast table with a well-educated couple from California who, I recall, were very concerned about environmental issues facing the world. I told them I had recently been drawn to the fine way American writers use the English language, and was always keen to discover more such good writers. I asked if they could recommend anyone. The lady advised me to check out John McPhee, that he covered a wide number of often unusual subjects but wrote very well. Having heard that on an Alaskan cruise, soon after, I, of course, began my reading of McPhee via his Coming into Country, an account of Alaska and its people written in the seventies.
In 2017 I read Draft No. 4 On the Writing Process soon after it was released and recently read it a second time. It only gets better. In his eight essays, McPhee enlivens every aspect of his profession. Among other things, he focuses on structure, frame of reference, fact checking, drafting, and omission. All essays are rich with detail drawn from his decades of experience, illustrating over and over how moments of great learning and realisation accumulate and continue to serve him right up to his current work.
Through his mindful crafted language, McPhee is able to work a simple story into a valuable and seemingly timeless lesson. Here I am thinking of his tale of how he still uses the dictionary to help his word choice. He turns this mundane process into an engaging and instructional lesson for any writer who is always looking for the best word, the best way to express themselves.
I was also impressed with McPhee’s succinct description of creative non-fiction: ‘What is creative about nonfiction? It takes a whole semester to try and 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.’ page 185
I have gone on to read several other of McPhee’s works and continue to enjoy reading him. One reason for this enjoyment is the inspiration I receive when it comes to my own writing. I recently found an online biography of McPhee (written by Norman Sims) and I confess that I topped and tailed it down to two A4 pages so I could paste it wholesale into my present writing journal. It contains most of the reasons why I think John McPhee is such a good role model for the writer. I am adding this below. It remains largely unedited, the reader should go the Norman Sims biography for the full version.
• McPhee’s work thrives on narrative and characterisation;
• Whatever his subject matter, McPhee finds a way to make it interesting and artistic;
• McPhee proves the value of “ordinary life” in literary journalism, but his writing techniques and style are far from ordinary;
• McPhee organises his material and structures his narratives before he starts writing. In an interview he says: ‘Structure liberates you’;
• ‘But a writer should also bear in mind there are numerous paths to this goal and they’re all O.K. It’s like a huge river with a lot of islands in it. You can go around an island to the left or right. You can go to this or that island. You might get into an eddy. But you’re still in the river. You’re going to get there. If the person expects the big answer at 21, that’s ridiculous. Everyone’s in the dark’;
• Participation is a way of finding a narrative;
• McPhee may assume, as well, the roles of limited participant, foil to more knowledgeable informants, and translator of arcane material to an intelligent but uninformed audience, but his most critical role is that of witness to his subjects’ performances, which centers almost exclusively around their commitment to a job or calling;
• One device that carries information in a narrative McPhee calls a “set piece”;
• “Remember the possibilities in nonfiction writing,” he said in an interview, “the character sketching that stops well short of illegitimate invention. There’s plenty of room for invention, for ‘creativity,’ stopping well short of invading a number of things that only fiction can do. You can use fictional techniques: narrative, dialogue, character sketching, description, metaphor. Above all metaphor.”
• “Things that are cheap and tawdry in fiction work beautifully in nonfiction because they are true. That’s why you should be careful not to abridge it, because it’s the fundamental power you’re dealing with. You arrange it and present it. There’s lots of artistry. But you don’t make it up.
• “Nobody’s making rules that cover everybody. The nonfiction writer is communicating with the reader about real people in real places. So if those people talk, you say what those people said. You don’t say what the writer decides they said. I get prickly if someone suggests there’s dialogue in my pieces that I didn’t get from the source. You don’t make up dialogue. You don’t make a composite character. Where I came from, a composite character was fiction. So when somebody makes a nonfiction character out of three people who are real, that is a fictional character in my opinion. And you don’t get inside their heads and think for them. You can’t interview the dead. You could make a list of the things you don’t do. Where writers abridge that, they hitchhike on the credibility of writers who don’t.”
• “It makes no difference what McPhee writes about; his subjects are irrelevant; we love him for his form. Oh, how he can shift his feet! Transitions are the niftiest things he does, moving from past into present, from present into past, shifting abruptly from one scene or set of characters to another.” McPhee says he spends a lot of time not writing those graceful transitions; instead he allows his structures to juxtapose elements that need no bridges to link them together. “Two parts of a piece of writing, merely by lying side-by-side, can comment on each other without a word spoken,” he said.
• Above all, he told me, he wants to keep writing: “Writing is like a river meandering along. It won’t through time stay in the same banks. It cuts out new things and fills in other places. Sometimes it jumps across its own meanders. You wonder what you’re going to be doing ten or fifteen years hence.
• “I never publish a word, never have, in The New Yorker magazine or anywhere else, that wasn’t at a given point in the course of the composition read aloud.”
• He selects material for a piece of writing using the same process—“because something or other made you more interested in that subject than any of the thousands of others lying around at the same time.” And then, the voice and the architecture of the piece start to take shape. McPhee looks for “a structure that rises organically from the material as collected, not something imposed from the outside.”
• But ultimately, McPhee said, “I’m not writing about subjects—oranges and agriculture and so on—I’m writing about the people who do it. The common thread in all the work I’ve done from scratch is people, their natures, their reactions, their expertise, whatever they’re up to, and how that expresses their characters.”