Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lessons from a Master

When I sit down to write a nonfiction book or article, one of the authors I try to emulate is longtime New Yorker writer John McPhee. The other day I came across an interview McPhee did with the Paris Review in spring 2010. In the interview, McPhee offered details on how he prepares for his well researched books and offered advice any nonfiction writer could use.

Some of the gems that attracted my attention included:

"The thing about writers is that, with very few exceptions, they grow slowly—very slowly."

"At one point I said, Mr. Shawn, you have this whole enterprise going, a magazine is printing this weekend, and you’re the editor of it, and you sit here talking about these commas and semicolons with me—how can you possibly do it? And he said, It takes as long as it takes. A great line, and it’s so true of writing. It takes as long as it takes."

"There are zillions of ideas out there—they stream by like neutrons. What makes somebody pluck forth one thing—a thing you’re going to be spending as much as three years with? If I went down a list of all the pieces I ever had in The New Yorker, upward of ninety percent would relate to things I did when I was a kid."

"Structure is not a template. It’s not a cookie cutter. It’s something that arises organically from the material once you have it."

"With nonfiction, you’ve got your material, and what you’re trying to do is tell it as a story in a way that doesn’t violate fact, but at the same time is structured and presented in a way that makes it interesting to read.

I always say to my classes that it’s analogous to cooking a dinner. You go to the store and you buy a lot of things. You bring them home and you put them on the kitchen counter, and that’s what you’re going to make your dinner out of. If you’ve got a red pepper over here—it’s not a tomato. You’ve got to deal with what you’ve got. You don’t have an ideal collection of material every time out."

"You write a lead. You sit down and think, Where do I want this piece to begin? What makes sense? It can’t be meretricious. It’s got to deliver on what you promise. It should shine like a flashlight down through the piece."

"You look for good juxtapositions. If you’ve got good juxtapositions, you don’t have to worry about what I regard as idiotic things, like a composed transition. If your structure really makes sense, you can make some jumps and your reader is going to go right with you. You don’t need to build all these bridges and ropes between the two parts."

"Stories are always really, really hard. I think it’s totally rational for a writer, no matter how much experience he has, to go right down in confidence to almost zero when you sit down to start something. Why not? Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you."

"All these labels—I’ve been called an agricultural writer, an outdoor writer, an environmental writer, a sportswriter, a science writer. And so you just grin. I’m a writer who writes about real people in real places. End of story."

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