John McPhee’s plans & his surprises

The February 8 issue of The New Yorker featured an essay by John McPhee called “The Patch.” It’s about one of McPhee’s passions, fishing for chain pickerel, but it takes an unusual turn for McPhee when it also portrays the dying in 1984 of his physician father, who taught McPhee to fish. The elder McPhee, felled by a stroke at eighty-nine, was unresponsive until his son told him about a pickerel he’d just landed with his father’s ancient bamboo rod. Dr. McPhee, though still silent—insensate, according to his doctor—wept. His son also depicts the callous young doctor and his own inner rage at the man.

McPhee, now seventy-nine, a staff writer since 1965 for The New Yorker, is the author of thirty-two books, including his new Silk Parachute and the Pulitzer-winning Annals of the Former World, a melding of his four books about North America’s geologic history. “The Patch” is a bookend for McPhee’s concise essay “Silk Parachute,” about his mother, which appeared a decade ago; both pieces are collected in the latest book by this master of literary journalism. The buzz around Silk Parachute has focused on its personal subject matter. McPhee has always been present in his work, but his use of self has been understated—no holding forth, using his personal history, or revealing his own emotional state—and he’s famous for meticulously planning his books and journalistic essays.

This quarter my class on the relationship of humans and nature read McPhee’s 1980 book Encounters with the Archdruid, in which McPhee takes wilderness trips with conservationist icon David Brower and with three of Brower’s foes—a geologist who wants a copper mine in the pristine Glacier Peak Wilderness, a developer who wants to build an upscale community on a wild Georgia island, and the head of the Bureau of Reclamation who wants to dam another western river. It was McPhee’s idea to throw these men together on trails and rafts and to record the sparks that flew. He appears to regard all parties in the adventure with similar admiration and wry affection. He’s present as a minor character, albeit the narrator and the writer who created the situations and the story.

Without striking a falsely “objective” reportorial pose, McPhee refuses to reveal his viewpoint in Encounters with the Archdruid on the big issue of who’s right, Brower the tree-hugger or the men who put humans first. McPhee shows that Brower’s establishment enemies are furious because Brower doesn’t fight fair: he will lie or misrepresent issues to gain public favor. His means may be dirty but, in debates on the trips, Brower’s stance seems reasonable: so much of America has been tamed or trampled, let’s preserve a few wild places. The developers have their own arguments stemming from human needs and desires. McPhee’s aim in the book seems to be to so clarify this issue that he puts the existential burden of taking one side or the other squarely on the shoulders of the reader.

McPhee has combined reporting with personal nonfiction to striking effect in other pieces that are based on a great idea. I think his “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” published in The New Yorker in 1972 and widely anthologized, is one of the best and most creative American essays. It’s about McPhee’s game of Monopoly with another champion player (at their level, games last a max of about seventeen minutes; McPhee doesn’t go into how he got so good) and alternates between the board and his visits to Atlantic City in search of the actual places (he goes to jail several times in both venues).  McPhee weaves in the history of the resort and the game, and he contrasts the game’s slick environs with the tawdry actuality of the actual place. The location of Marvin Gardens is a mystery he must solve, because it isn’t contiguous with the boardwalk area. The essay is segmented, so it’s structurally innovative as well as topically innovative.

In a recent interview with The Los Angeles Times, McPhee attributed his comparatively personal turn in Silk Parachute to having lots of down time while he recuperated from surgeries. “I just started writing,” he said. “I guess I’m not used to all that spare time. I usually know where I’m going with a story. A novelist can feel her way with a story, but that’s not the case in nonfiction. It’s a central theme of the course I teach: Know where you’re going.”

James L. Howarth, in the introduction to The John McPhee Reader, which in 1982 excerpted McPhee’s first dozen books, described McPhee’s working method for literary journalism that allowed him to break a major piece into parts, to think in smaller components, and to develop a structure:

• He types up his field notes, sometimes adding new details or thoughts; his typescript, clasped in a three-ring binder, may run to 100 pages.

• He makes a photocopy of the typescript, shelves it for later use, and jots notes in the margins of his working copy about areas that need further research.

• He reads the binder and thinks about possible structures; he might foresee the ending, and at this point he sometimes writes the essay’s opening, as much as 2,000 words.

• He codes the binder with structural categories, usually cryptic words or acronyms; he then writes these topics on index cards, which he shuffles into various orders. He then tacks the cards to a huge bulletin board in his chosen order.

• He codes his duplicate set of notes and cuts them apart with scissors, sorting the thousands of scraps into file folders, one for each topical index card on his board. He puts the folders in a filing cabinet and, with a steel dart stuck beneath his first card on the board, begins to write. As the dart moves to a new card, he opens a new folder, sorting its contents until that segment within the structure also has a workable structure.

“Outlined in this fashion,” Howarth writes, “McPhee’s writing methods may seem excessively mechanical, almost programmatic in his sorting and retrieval of data bits. But the main purpose of this routine is at once practical and aesthetic: it runs a line of order through the chaos of his notes and files, leaving him free to write on a given parcel of work at a given time. The other sections cannot come crowding in to clutter his desk and mind; he is spared that confusion by the structure of his work, by an ordained plan that cannot come tumbling down.”

In writing his personal essays, McPhee may have abandoned his meticulous planning, but his steady labor at his craft apparently remained. In her Los Angeles Times profile of McPhee (here), Susan Salter Reynolds reports, “McPhee writes three or four drafts of each piece, spending about two years on the first draft, four months on the second, one month on the third and one week on the fourth.”

I celebrated McPhee’s rare interview because he helps clarify a difference in approach between writing based on memory—fiction, memoir, personal essays—and writing that reproduces intentionally reported experience or which builds a case. Everyone’s method will differ slightly, and most are surely combinations. Fiction and life-story writers tend to emphasize discovery; they may have a strong visual image or memory they explore to find out what else they remember, think, and feel. But a writer trying to render an event or to pursue a thesis for a magazine or book may well benefit from trying McPhee’s tested organizational method. How neat that he speaks for both planning and discovery, once again weakening the notion that nonfiction can be treated as a monolith instead of as a continuum that ranges from literature, in the form of the most novelistic memoir, to a basic news report about a city council meeting.

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4 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, discovery, emotion, essay-narrative, honesty, journalism, memoir, NOTED, structure, subjectivity, working method

4 responses to “John McPhee’s plans & his surprises

  1. I, in fact, groaned when I saw McPhee’s Pickerel story in The New Yorker, and then read it with delight. Although I love to fish, like food or pornography, it’s not something I particularly like to read about because reading makes me hungry, horny or fishing that I were fishing instead of reading. Pickerel was some of the best McPhee I’ve read — and I’ve read a lot. As you know, Richard, I particularly liked his method of getting ready to write. For huge magazine stories that it takes me months to research, I’ve always made an index to my notes, numbering each salient thing I’ve gathered. This results in sheets and sheets of closely written indexes with key phases to remind me of what lies in my notes. Then when I get ready to write, I read my index, highlight it in different colors and go to work assembling the pieces. This method is particularly helpful in finding transitions or wherever you want to go next. An editor called it my crutch and forbid me from doing it. I told him I’d quit the job first. When I found it most helpful was when I was in newspapers and had to find things on deadline or answer an editor’s questions.
    Thanks for the post, Richard.

    • Of course I remember your technique, which is the same idea as McPhee’s and which you taught me around 1980 in Cocoa, Florida. I went on to teach The Bailey Method of notes organization to other reporters and then to students.

  2. Great post! It’s so interesting to read about McPhee’s methods – he’s so meticulous in his writing, I’m not surprised at his particular methods for putting together a story. I’m looking forward to reading that piece in the New Yorker!

    • It’s a good essay—personal yet very restrained, of course. I think his “The Search for Marvin Gardens” is one of the greatest American essays. It’s about his game of Monopoly with another champion player (games last a max of about 17 minutes; McPhee does not go into the background of how he got so good) and alternates with his visits to Atlantic City in search of the actual places on the board (he goes to jail several times). Marvin Gardens is a mystery he must solve, because it isn’t around the boardwalk area. The essay is segmented, so it’s structurally innovative as well as topically innovative.