John McPhee on writer’s block

In which he nails the issue & I rename this blog Draft No. 4.

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.

—John McPhee

—source unknown

—source unknown

Thursday night, I told my wife about my notion of renaming this blog, called Narrative now well into its fifth year. “It’s getting confused with Narrative the online magazine,” I said. An acquaintance recently offered me a fine guest post, I explained, but withdrew it when I told her this wasn’t that Narrative.

Kathy nodded, taking this problem under advisement.

“Today I came up with the perfect name,” I went on. “I’ll call it The Fourth Draft. You know, that was my book’s transforming draft.”

“I’ll have to think about that,” she said, giving me pause. I saw that The Fourth Draft sounded like a minor-league baseball team or a microbrewery.

Friday morning, I sat down with my oatmeal and opened my new New Yorker, the April 29 issue, to John McPhee’s latest piece: “Draft No. 4.”

More than a title, it struck me as a sign.

McPhee’s essay, my favorite so far in his valedictory series on writing, is about writer’s block. He suffers the torments of the damned in forcing out his first drafts. “How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?” he asks, nailing the existential problem writers face in trying to make something out of nothing. “Until it exists,” he adds, “writing has not really begun.” Much of this grandiose problem of facing the blank page with the self seems simply the difficulty of thinking: writing is concentrated thought. Yet it’s true as well that one writes in Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.” One wants—no, wishes—to be worthy.

And first drafts don’t feel very worthy.

For McPhee, though, subsequent drafts just get easier and better. At last, in draft four, he draws boxes around many of his chosen words. He explains:

You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one. If there’s a box around “sensitive,” because it seems pretentious in the context, try “susceptible.” Why “susceptible”? Because you looked up “sensitive” in the dictionary and it said “highly susceptible.” With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus. If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you.

McPhee allows himself to enjoy the fourth draft, his final draft.

Honestly, I thought producing the fourth draft of my book, a memoir of farming, would kill me. I’d enjoyed writing the first draft, so much so that after some cutting and polishing, I was ready to shop around what I was probably calling draft three. Luckily I ran into an editor who bluntly directed me to get the services of a developmental editor. So I found one. Namely Bill Roorbach, a novelist, award-winning short story writer, and memoirist.

Development? That isn’t a big enough word for what Bill did to my book. I mean for my book. From sentences to story arc, he laid about with a heavy sword. But with a strangely positive energy and kindness—he believed in my story! All the same, when I got his report I crashed for three months.

My persona wasn’t working—there was blurring between me then, the guy in the action, and me now, at the desk recalling (plus he mentioned a meta-level of “me” beyond all that: the me creating the me at the desk; that one still tests the limit of my cognitive abilities). The narrative arc wasn’t working, either, because I’d bring up a character who should have appeared throughout, but dispose of him right away, as if the chapter were a stand-alone essay. And my scenes weren’t sustained enough to dramatize fully my experience.

Whew. Bill’s markup in Word looked like the Fourth of July. I say I crashed for three months, but the actual fetal position surely lasted only about three weeks. Then I got up and thought, and walked and thought, and read voraciously. I questioned myself down to the soles of my feet. I grasped what Annie Dillard said about sitting with a book as with a dying friend. I decided I’d worked too long and hard to quit and let my book fully expire. Though I’d cobbled together an awkward narrative homunculus, I still yearned to share my story.

And the heart of my monster was there, weakly beating. Bill said the creature just needed major surgery.

My crisis over Bill’s editing turned out to be trivial. For the first time, I had to force myself to the keyboard. The resistance, I’m sure, was fear of failure. Then the usual happened: it took me an hour to re-enter the work; in the second hour I started producing; in the third and final hour, all I’m usually good for, came any good stuff. My usual hourly rate held steady, a page an hour.

I’ve just polished my sixth draft, and my book is ready. I hope to announce a publishing contract soon. Meantime, it’s not easy for me to rename this blog, because I love the word narrative and think of myself as writing for an entity I created called Narrative. But everyone else loves the word too, and with a literary magazine having claimed the name, I feel like someone who writes about TV news calling his blog CNN.

So in honor of my agonizing but fruitful fourth draft, and in hopes that I might one day emulate McPhee’s comparative ease and pleasure in his fourth drafts, I hereby rechristen this old blog Draft No. 4.


Filed under blogging, craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, memoir, MY LIFE, Persona, Voice, POV, revision, working method

24 responses to “John McPhee on writer’s block

  1. I love it! What an organic way to shift your blog title– and it suits it so well! I loved this story, it’s so fun when the world shows us in signs how connected everything is.

  2. If it’s any comfort to you, and I don’t know that it will be, but here goes–yours is the only “Narrative” I was aware of, and I’ve always felt you sewed up the quintessential nature of the word in your blog. But, I will read you just as eagerly with the new blog title. After all, we both know yours is the preeminent “narrative” to watch! Good luck with getting the book published, too.

  3. Unfortunately, I am on the other Narrative’s mailing list, too. But yours is the Narrative I actually read. The friend who interviewed you because she thought this was the other Narrative? Daft.

    Yet I am a John McPhee groupie. Just seeing his name on a page gives me goosebumps. So I’m happy you changed the name of the blog, and I love the new name. It suits you better.

  4. This thoughtful discussion of drafting and titling has put me in just the right mind for writing today.

    I’m also dealing with a shared title problem, but have managed to ignore it so far; perhaps, like you, I’ll change it if/when it becomes required. For now I’ll be content with my small but generous readership.

  5. Yep, I can relate because I thought my final draft (don’t remember the number) of memoir collaboration would kill me, too.

    Love the McPhee quote at the top. Held breath thinking, oh crap, he’s going to say I am not a writer.

    Also, like the new blog name. I tweeted your posts for months via @NarrativeMag. They follow me on Twitter and never corrected my mistake. I think it was Shirley who set me straight me when we met in Baton Rouge.

    Btw, book deal is a comin’. Time to get a Twitter account. You want to sell as many books as possible. Your name is best to use if you can. Or some form of it, so when people Google you, they can find you. I’ve had the most positive experience there.

    • Thanks for these great tips, Darrelyn. Yeah, I may end up calling the blog by my name, too, especially if I go to a self-hosted site and can’t keep the same url.

      • That’s what I chose to do, Richard. The blog is subsumed under the website itself now. I can add lots of pages, and Plumb Media can alter the look for me. I don’t attempt to handle anything that requires coding, but I am happy to have a website with my name as the url. The blog no longer has a name but if people type in, that address still “points” to my current blog and website.

  6. I’ll read your posts no matter what your blog title, Richard. So excited that you are getting close to publication and can’t wait to help spread the word. I know without seeing a word of your book yet that it will be wonderful.

    Thanks to Darrelyn, I did the same thing you did and she did. Got some painful but necessary developmental editing help — at the last minute before my deadlines, so I didn’t have the luxury of four hours/day. I had to spend 8-10 hours for two weeks straight. The book is much better — tighter, lighter, and deeper. And I am still among the living.

    I think it was Draft Seven. But who’s counting?

    • Thanks for coming out of the closet on the editing, Shirley! It seems so much more common than we suppose because we are dealing with such a complex organism, a book. It used to just be called editing—it’s what publishers did for authors. But as I’ll explain in a future post in this series, that’s gone with the wind.

  7. I’m sure it is hard to let go of “Narrative” — but good to make the leap. Your blog is invaluable by any name — and I’m so happy your memoir has found a good home–eagerly awaiting the official announcement! I’m constantly referring my students in the memoir course to your blog–what a wealth of beautifully written, intelligent commentary on creative non-fiction. Nothing else like it! It has to be a lot of work, but also clearly a labor of love.

  8. Judy

    I also held my breath when reading McPhee’s quote at the beginning, then smiled, noting an abundance of relief. However, my writing block doesn’t fall under any distinct heading that I’ve run across before. By writing memoir, my deepest wounds connected to my parents healed before my eyes. I know that’s common when writing one’s memoir, but now I can’t seem to find the words to move on because the very pain that brought me to write, is gone, and in it’s place, the best and deepest forgiveness. In essence, perhaps, a nice problem to have, but not for a writer, not this one anyway.
    Keep on keeping on, no matter what you name your blog. I enjoy it always.

  9. I understand the need for a name change as I often end up at the “other” Narrative when searching for your site. I like the new name and enjoyed the story of origin! Many blessings and continued best wishes your way! Marissa

  10. Congratulations, Richard – on both counts. You have made me fall in love with the word narrative, and that will never die. I think of this as a graduation of sorts. You have, with out a doubt, arrived: as an author, a literary critic of the highest order, and, of course, a blogster extraordinaire!

  11. Larry

    Roorbach is a writer among giants. I see why you selected him. I marvel at his tasty syntax. These days I read only your narrative and his blog exclusively, and share what is within reach for my students. Thank you for Draft No. 4’s continued narrative.

  12. Ohhh, I love the new name of your blog. Although I did like Narrative, I think Draft No. 4 is more visual and more personal. And what a great story behind the name change–it makes this new name feel just right.

  13. Pingback: Gilbert, McPhee, Lamott, and the Shitty First Draft