The 'Unreadable' Thing: John McPhee On The Craft Of Writing

November 15, 2006


You might think writing comes easy to John McPhee.

He's been at it more than 40 years, after all, producing 27 books, writing for The New Yorker since 1964 and teaching writing at Princeton since 1975. And, oh yes, he has that Pulitzer Prize. All those years and words and accomplishments ought to add up to confidence – even hubris, perhaps – when turning a sea of complex detail, facts and characters into smoothly flowing narrative.

Well, John McPhee is just like the rest of us who write. He struggles, especially at the beginning. He's not good company when he's struggling. And he's shy, especially about approaching people for interviews.

McPhee spoke about writing, among other things, in a recent NPR interview ( storyIdU08293) in his boxcar of an office on the roof of Princeton's Geology building. The room is spartan but bright, with a high ceiling. It actually occupies a turret. Stand between McPhee's desk and his computer table and peer out the window at just the right angle, and Trenton is visible in the distance. That marks the location of the Delaware River, arguably the center of McPhee's universe. In fact, he'd been fishing from a canoe on the Delaware before we arrived this June to interview him.

It's clearly a writer's room, a working writer's room, with bound notes crammed in boxes, piles of used pocket-sized notebooks and enough dictionaries to fill a small but well-stocked bookstore. The mother of them all, the back-breaking unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, sits open on a plank on a waist-high refrigerator. Reference books line the bookshelves along with the collected published works of his writing students, an impressive and weighty collection itself. Scattered about the room are artifacts of a writer's life: a photo of a birch-bark canoe, geologic maps of the West, a hazmat placard and a basket "Don't touch them," McPhee warns us. It took him quite awhile, he adds, to clean the hands of the Princeton University president after she reached for them.

McPhee first refers to the piles of little notebooks as "junk," but then apologizes, to himself as much as his visitors, it seems. The notebooks represent one of the most important and convenient tools of his trade. "The little memo books are the things I always have in my pocket," McPhee noted. "I use a tape
recorder if I have to, if someone talks too quickly, but, by preference, I scribble in that notebook. Notebooks like that fit in my pocket and off I go." In fact, he crossed the continent with a truck driver for his most recent book, "Uncommon Carriers" (published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 2006), and came back with plenty of filled notebooks, but no tape. Whether written or spoken, the notes McPhee gathers after months of reporting excursions and research are reduced to numbered 3 x 5 cards. "Let's say there are 36 parts in this piece," he explained. "I know 1,2,3, up through 36, (and) where they're going to go." He juggles the cards, reorders them, to build the structure of a story or book. Then he can focus on any particular element, say part 3, and write that section without worrying about the rest of the piece.

But this isn't the beginning. A lead comes first. "If you know where you're starting…then the rest of it is much easier to structure and figure out than it would be if you started cold without the lead." McPhee defined leads this way in a 1989 interview with Terry Gross for the NPR program "Fresh Air": "The lead ought to shine like a flashlight down into the whole piece."

Writing the lead and building the structure seem relatively easy for John McPhee. Not like writing the first draft, which he approaches with "dread." That's what he told my colleague Noah Adams in a 1998 interview for "All Things Considered." "My daughter Jenny tells me not to carry on as dourly as I do about the writing process," McPhee said. "She says, 'You know you have fun doing it part of the time and so you ought to say so.' So I will begin by saying that. I do have fun part of the time. A really small part."

"I feel inadequate," McPhee told Sierra magazine editor Joan Hamilton in 1990. "Sometimes I'm so desperate I'm almost throwing things at the paper." McPhee told Hamilton that this is also a difficult part of the process for his wife, Yolanda. "If I want to make Yolanda mad, I just tell her I'm going to start working at home again," McPhee explained to Hamilton.

Even now, with 27 of his own books on the shelf, there's still pain with the first draft. "Name anything I've ever written," McPhee told me this summer. "The first draft was an unreadable thing. And you would not want to show it to anybody because it's just full of entrails hanging out with loose ends…You belch it all out on paper. When you've got something on paper, you then have something to work with…and turn into a piece of writing."

So, no one else sees the first draft. But somebody hears the second. McPhee believes the written word must be read aloud and heard before it makes it into print. "I've never written a word that I haven't heard going over my tongue…A perfectly good sentence may have to be changed because sentence number two makes it a little awkward rhythmically…A significant goal for me is to just hear this thing."

This is when it is safe to work at home or at least read the second draft to wife Yolanda. A Princeton friend also listens, at times, and McPhee often reads aloud as he writes. By this time, "…the dread goes away for me," McPhee told Noah Adams in 1998. "And I become much more caught up in it, with what might even be described as pleasure now and again."

McPhee describes great pleasure in the friendships he develops with some of the characters in his books. He becomes wistful as he recalls several of them: Don Ainsworth, the trucker in "Uncommon Carriers;" the coal train and tow boat crews in "Uncommon Carriers;" former basketball whiz Bill Bradley in "A Sense of Where You Are;" Captain Paul Washburn, the skipper of the Merchant Marine vessel, in "Looking for a Ship." These are people who McPhee spent days or weeks with, often 24-7, sometimes in cramped quarters. He has focused on people and their interaction with a subject rather than the subject itself. "The person gives me a story," McPhee says. "What my work has in common, 100 percent of it, is it's about real people in real places. Period. Everything else is miscellaneous, from tennis and nuclear energy to some trapper in Alaska. But, they're all people doing these things. And that's what I do…sketches of people."

This affinity for people begins with a distinct disadvantage. "I am shy," McPhee reveals. He has a hard time approaching people. "It's something I'm not very fond of…It's hard to walk up the walk and go into the door and start talking to somebody…It's very hard."

But the reticence doesn't last. "In my work, I get by that…Once you get to know them a little bit and they tell you interesting things…off you go." This seems to be the part of the process McPhee enjoys most. "I've spent half my life in pickups, riding around, while people do what they do. I just sort of melt into the other seat and I love being there. But, by now, I know them."

Once he's with them, McPhee generally sits back and observes. "I don't have any method. I don't have a prepared set of questions. I don't have anything…I don't actually write questions down…I do feel that you should prepare enough so that you're not impolite…I just get into it, start asking questions and learn as I go."

McPhee acknowledges that extensive time with his characters and stories gives him more flexibility than reporters with more frequent deadlines. "I do not envy reporters who go out every day on a different story. You have to develop a real talent for that. I don't have to because I'm so long with each subject.

" In the final stage of writing, McPhee turns to his collection of dictionaries. "Hunting around dictionaries" is something he does a lot, he says. "I've written rectangles around certain words. They're perfectly all right. They look like opportunities, not for a more recondite word (but) usually a shorter one."

The search for simplicity, for a 5-cent replacement for a 25- cent word, does not start with a thesaurus. McPhee is adamant about that. "I'm forever looking up words I know to see how the dictionary defines them because it will lead you to a word that's better…The thesaurus is a bad way to start because it's got a miscellaneous collection of words that are related in meaning, but aren't the same…You wouldn't want to pluck one out of Roget and hope for the best."

We pause briefly during our interview to change flash cards (we use recorders that record audio on flash memory cards) and are surprised to learn we've been at it more than two hours. It's time to free McPhee from our microphones. But there are two more questions, one writer to another. Well, more like one journeyman to a master. "Where do the story ideas come from?" I ask. 

Curiosity, he responds. And serendipity. But many of his subjects can be traced back to summer canoe camps that began almost 70 years ago.

"All this interest in environmental things and the outdoors and the bark canoe and Alaska and…geology derived from interests when I was in high school or earlier. I started going to canoe tripping summer camps that made canoe trips all over the place when I was six. And I was still there in college leading these canoe trips…You can see that it was…a limited world but that's my world. And I still live in canoes today."

McPhee is now 75 and I wonder how many words and characters he has left in him. I try to figure out a polite way to ask about the stories and books to come. "I'm not going to stop doing this," he responds, emphatically. "I'm just trying to figure out what I'm going to do next. Y'know, you always start with a small thing and see where it grows."

Howard Berkes is National Public Radio's rural affairs correspondent and is based in Salt Lake City. He has spent most of his 25-year NPR career reporting on the American West. The interview with John McPhee took place on June 8. Portions were broadcast on NPR's All Things Considered on June 24 and and are available at 

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Fall, 2006 issue.

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