Tag Archives: John McPhee

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.

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

John McPhee discusses chronological structure

Chronology is useful but hostile to thematic content, the writer says.

Futuristic Ceiling x

You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.—John McPhee, in The New Yorker

“There’s nothing wrong with a chronological structure,” McPhee explains in a recent New Yorker essay. “On tablets in Babylonia, most pieces were written that way, and nearly all pieces are written that way now.”

And yet, after ten years of chronology at Time and The New Yorker, McPhee, who is famous for his intricate structures and says he is obsessed with structure, yearned for a thematically dominated piece. In his new essay, “Structure” (Jan. 14, 2013), he says almost always there is “considerable tension” between chronology and theme, and chronology wins. “The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected.”

You must, he says, find some way to “tuck them in.” In the case of his 1969 profile of an art historian, he was frustrated by how hostile chronology was to content, or what McPhee calls themes: “the theme of forgery was scattered all over the chronology of his life.” McPhee realized something: “A piece of writing about a single person could be presented as any number of discrete portraits, each distinct from the others and thematic in character, leaving the chronology of the subject’s life to look after itself.”

McPheeArt

McPhee’s drawing of the structure of “Travels in Georgia”

McPhee returned to chronology, more or less, for his famous 1973 article “Travels in Georgia,” about a team of biologists collecting road-killed animals and sometimes eating them. It opens with scene not on day one but later, and after that proceeds chronologically: “There are structural alternatives, but for the story of a journey they can be unpromising and confusing when compared with a structure that is chronologically controlled.”

I remember “Travels” also employing a huge flashback section later on that supplies background on its subjects at one’s Atlanta redoubt. But I may be wrong, from faulty memory or because, if you try to trace the biologists’ route across Georgia as presented in the story, it moves confusingly. They ping-pong from one corner of the state to another and—if you are trying to pinpoint their location—seem to make puzzling jumps. Once, about two years ago, after I thought I had its structure figured out, I tried to lead a class through it using a Georgia map and McPhee’s pretty but odd drawing, and we all became perplexed.

McPhee always lets the reader know where the actors are in “Travels in Georgia” but does not ensure the reader knows how they got there, which maybe isn’t important. Most readers go with the flow and aren’t ex-Georgians like me. Yet anyone trying to follow McPhee’s structural diagram while reading the piece may conclude its structure is too clever by half, however great the article—and it is wonderful.

There’s more on structure, a lot more, in McPhee’s chatty “Structure,” another of a series of valedictory essays the octogenarian immersion journalist and (of late) essayist has been publishing in The New Yorker. They’ve made me glad I’m a subscriber even if reading a writer on his structure tends to be only slightly more comprehensible than hearing a politician explain the fiscal cliff.

Still, having written a memoir that’s chronologically structured I rejoice to hear McPhee speak candidly about what a hard mistress chronology can be. We live our lives chronologically, of course, so it’s an easy structure for readers to grasp. But human memory doesn’t work that way—it’s a jumble from which images arise—and neither does our understanding.

In memoir, I realized several years ago, chronology is somewhat hostile to reflection. To say a memoir is chronological is to say, in effect, that it is driven by events; the person experiencing the events is, by definition, comparatively clueless. The tension between chronology and reflection accounts for why so many writers and critics are forever seeking a memoir that can escape the trap of chronology and ignorance and, instead, emphasize meaning (conveyed by a wiser, distanced narrator). And do this while preserving some sort of timeline. That is, to have a modicum of plot.

Bestselling memoirs tend to be plot-driven, while those that achieve the most literary respect tend to be reflective. Trying to bridge this chasm seems cruelly difficult, though it may be more wholesome to view it as a glorious challenge.

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Filed under craft, technique, essay-narrative, journalism, memoir, narrative, NOTED, plotting vs. pantsing, structure, theme

Noted: Gutkind on nonfiction’s truth

Does the nature of narrative complicate his 1-2-3 recipe?

The subject is there only by the grace of the author’s language.

—Joyce Carol Oates

Immersion journalist and nonfiction theorist Lee Gutkind distills his practices in an essay, “Three R’s of Narrative Nonfiction,” in the New York Times’s popular Draft column that deals with writing. Responsible narrative nonfiction writers follow a similar procedure to assure accuracy while recreating events they didn’t see and others’ mental states, asserts Gutkind. Here’s the nut of his essay:

But to reconstruct stories and scenes, nonfiction writers must conduct vigorous and responsible research. In fact, narrative requires more research than traditional reportage, for writers cannot simply tell what they learn and know; rather, they must show it. When I talk with my students, I introduce a process of work I call the three R’s: First comes research, then real world exploration and finally and perhaps most important, a fact-checking review of all that has been written.

The rest of Gutkind’s piece is an elaboration of his three stages. Pretty straightforward and old hat, though useful for students and teachers, his prescription is intended for the powerful literary technique of scenic construction. Gutkind himself is a modest figure in his work, present but impersonal, like John McPhee tends to be, though scene-by-scene construction in journalism is associated with the showy New Journalism of the 1970s.

Gutkind’s essay provoked a thoughtful response from one Hayden White, a retired English professor in California:

All narrative is fictional insofar as the “story” has to be made out of “the facts.” No set of facts adds up to or amounts to a story without the writer’s intervention as the story-teller. Secondly, the relation between factual and fictional writing is not a matter of either-or, but of some kind of mutual implicativeness having to do with the nature of stories themselves. It is impossible to avoid the use of literary devices even in historical writing, which typically aspires to deal in facts alone. Instead of reinforcing the idea that fact and fiction are opposed to one another, such that you have to be doing either one or the other, might it not be better to teach aspiring writers that even the most fact-bound writing cannot avoid “literariness”?

We all know the truth in White’s first assertion: everyone who witnesses an event sees something different and recounts it differently. The storyteller creates the story by imposing meaning and deciding emphasis. Ordinary journalism is maddening in its denial of this truth and in its societally useful but unacknowledged efforts to seek group consensus rather than individual insight. As for the commentator’s second point, that literary devices are essentially indistinguishable in fiction and nonfiction, amen.

White’s trenchant observations become perhaps too compressed and/or simply fail when he continues:

The mistake here is to think that “literature” (or literary writing) is “fictional” and to overlook the fact that not all fictional writing is “literary.” Unfortunately, it is to forget that all too little factual writing either lacks all literariness or is simply bad writing.

When he says in the first sentence that “not all fictional writing is ‘literary,’ ” I presume he’s bashing poor fiction but possibly—because of his first clause—being ironic toward some nonfiction that’s actually fiction. In his second sentence, I wonder if he means “too much” nonfiction lacks literary quality rather than “all too little.” I actually emailed White and asked him to elaborate for Narrative, but he either didn’t get my query or chose to ignore it. Manna in heaven for anyone who can decode his conclusion.

Gutkind makes a big deal of factual accuracy in his essay while emphasizing the use of scenes, the building blocks of dramatized writing, which became associated with fiction. Hence White’s interesting but peevish rejoinder. I presume that in the classroom, Gutkind, like most nonfiction teachers, notes that scenes are used not only to recreate experience but to convey point of view. Literary journalism says, I can show others’ key moments and viewpoints, not just this writer’s. This may indeed be literally impossible, despite cooperative subjects—think of the issues in recreating one’s own subjective experience—but smart readers appreciate and most readers cooperate with a necessary dollop of fiction.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, immersion, journalism, narrative, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, working method

Noted: Jonah Lehrer’s downfall

Yesterday I got around to reading the New York Times Book Review’s full-page massacre of Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer, and wished I’d been even more grudging in my own piece touching on the bestseller. Then later in the day the news broke that Lehrer had invented quotes he attributed to Bob Dylan, and I wished I’d mentioned my own reservations about the Dylan material, which appears early in the book.

They were these:

• Dylan’s use seemed gratuitous in that it was poorly integrated and not very illustrative. Dylan is shorthand for creativity writ large, granted. But a better example might have been Bruce Springsteen, with his creative process recently explored in a documentary about the making of his great album Darkness on the Edge of Town. (Springsteen is the subject of an exhaustive profile by David Remnick in the current New Yorker.)

• I disagreed with Lehrer’s interpretation of Dylan’s historic “gone electric” British tour. (Of course it occurred to me, with mingled pride and mortification, that I’ve been thinking about Dylan longer than Lehrer, thirty one, has been alive.)

• The quotes were not attributed, first seeming to imply Lehrer had gotten an interview—highly unlikely—and when it was clear he hadn’t I wondered about his source. Why not give credit, if only for historical reasons, as he would have had to do for The New Yorker where he was a staff writer? A big trade-press gloss on clunky journalistic technique, I supposed.

I couldn’t check my second bullet point, by using Amazon’s “look inside feature,” to recall what Lehrer said about Dylan’s tour or the songs he performed because like any manufacturer with a defective product, Houghton Mifflin has recalled it. (I’d gotten it from the library.) The other consequence of his “piping the quotes,” as old newspapermen used to say, is that Lehrer has had to resign as a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Googling Lehrer now turns up all kinds of stuff, like the post by Josh Levin on June 19 in Slate revealing that Lehrer has been “self plagiarizing”—recycling material in his New Yorker blog that he’d written for other publications. This passage by Levin was prescient:

For a writer as prolific as Lehrer, reusing a phrase every so often may be unavoidable. But why would a writer as accomplished as Lehrer become this much of a copy/paste addict? Because he has ceased to be a writer. With the success of his recent books How We Decide and Imagine: How Creativity Works, Lehrer has moved into the idea business. This is the world of TED talks and corporate lectures, a realm in which your thoughts are your product. For the idea man, the written word is just one of many mediums for conveying your message and building your brand.

Contrast Lehrer’s busyness with elderly New Yorker staffer John McPhee, a far more conservative writer who has been faithful to the written word in two mediums, the magazine and some twenty-nine books—no blogger, he—and who has forged a style that makes a virtue of clunky transparency and self deprecation. In his current chatty piece in The New Yorker about editors he has known, McPhee works his persona: On my best day I wasn’t as smart or as colorful as these guys, my legendary editors. Kind of like Dylan’s claim that he’s just a tin pan alley song and dance man, but whatever.

Not just Lehrer but his editors seem to have been juggling too much. For a lapsed neuroscientist and Rhodes scholar, Lehrer was really dumb to pipe quotes about Dylan: there are too many Dylan fanatics to let that stand. Among a few others, John D’Agata recently has been defiant about his license to make up stuff in nonfiction. But once again, we see that readers and the publishing marketplace ultimately demand that writers try to be honest. Which resides partly in transparency—generally credit sources even if that’s clunky—and resides partly in the mythic, historic, and poetic vision of the writer as someone after truth.

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Filed under honesty, journalism, NOTED, teaching, education

Luis Urrea’s ‘The Devil’s Highway’

A horrendous story told with bitter skill, highlighting the whole sordid, greedy mess that attends illegal broader crossings.—Kirkus Reviews

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. Little, Brown, 256 pp.

Poet, memoirist, novelist, short story writer, journalist—Luis Alberto Urrea is the best writer I’d never heard of until I read The Devil’s Highway. Urrea, creative writing professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has published thirteen books. A 2005 Pulitzer finalist, The Devil’s Highway is about the suffering and deaths in a group of twenty-six Mexicans who tried to sneak into America through the Arizona desert in May 2001. This tragic incident is deeply and palpably researched and fully imagined.

The book begins with the Border Patrol’s discovery of the dying refugees. At least fourteen of the Mexicans, most of them from Veracruz, a leafy tropical place, died in the desert, sunbaked—as maladapted as gringos to heat over 100 degrees, no shade, their scant water scalding and then gone. This part is written from the point of view of the Border Patrol, the writer having spent much time with its agents and environs. He also met with smugglers and illegals.

One of the book’s impressive feats is that readers experience how each group thinks, jokes, sees the world—and, surprisingly for Border Patrol’s image, we see their compassion for Mexicans who risk their lives for the most modest dreams; in their rough way the agents aren’t above playing jokes on them, and call them “tonks,” for the sound a cop’s flashlight makes hitting their heads, but the macho border guards labor daily to save them, too. Rushing to help this group, Urrea reports, they sustain twenty-six flat tires, and some drive on rims.

The cops and the illegals alone know the stakes:

 Death by sunlight, hyper-thermia, was the main culprit. But illegals drowned, froze, committed suicide, were murdered, were hit by trains and trucks, were bitten by rattlesnakes, had heart attacks. . . . The deaths, however, that fill the agents with deepest rage are the deaths of illegals lured into the wasteland and then abandoned by their Coyotes.

The book’s midsection recreates the fatal trip from beginning to end. As the illegal crossing falls apart in the trackless Sonora, Urrea artfully cites official reports and interviews. He’d already earned my trust, and my pleasure here extended to his imagination. He recreates the wanderings of the delirious, splintered group, and riffs on what it feels like to be at the mercy of careless, incompetent smugglers and to die horribly of thirst and heatstroke. Forget sunburn and cracked lips: the skin blackens, the kidneys stop, organs break down internally.

In places, the prose becomes surreal and hallucinogenic:

The day tormented them. Thirst. Pain. Men crawled under creosotes, under the scant shade of scraggly mesquites. It was a dull repetition of the entire walk. As rote as factory work. Their hours clanged by like machines. They were in the dirt like animals.

Six o’clock in the morning took ten hours to become seven o’clock.

A week later, it was eight o’clock.

The temperature screamed into the nineties before nine o’clock.

They waited. They couldn’t even talk. They panted like dogs, groaned. Men put their hands to their chests, almost delicately, as if checking their own pulses. But they were barely awake. They were half in dreams and half in the day, and the day itself was a bad dream. Dry wings swished in the air around them. Voices, coughing. Far above, the icy silver chips of airplanes cut the blue. Out of reach.

Named a best book of the year by many publications and optioned by Mexican director Luis Mandoki for a film to star Antonio Banderas, The Devil’s Highway reflects Urrea’s long interest, heritage, and expertise. As a young writer for The San Diego Reader, he published pieces adapted from and shaped into his first book, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border. In a video interview on his web site, Urrea says of the brutal city desk editors of his newspaper days: “I had not been handled indelicately like that. I’d been rejected but not insulted. But they really fixed that book for me.”

I read The Devil’s Highway against the backdrop of rage about fabrications in various nonfiction books, and Urrea’s exhaustive but imaginative work makes shortcuts or fabrications seem lazy or puerile. Urrea is not nearly as button-downed as Tracy Kidder or John McPhee—at points he clearly imagines—but even without his long note explaining to readers his multiple approaches, The Devil’s Highway teaches itself and justifies itself in every line to anyone who reads it.

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Filed under film/photography, honesty, immersion, journalism, REVIEW

What’s an essay, what’s journalism?

“From journalism to the essay to the memoir: the trip being taken by a nonfiction persona deepens, and turns ever more inward.”

—Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story

Over thirty years ago, in the heyday of the New Journalism, Tom Wolfe enumerated the techniques, associated with fiction, that can make journalism equally absorbing. He repeated his precepts recently in an essay, “The Emotional Core of the Story,” collected in the excellent 2007 textbook Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call. I’ve used this book in journalism feature writing classes, along with Zeitoun by Dave Eggers and sometimes The John McPhee Reader.

There are, Wolfe repeats in the book, “exactly four” techniques the successful narrative journalist needs to employ:

 Scenes: Present the narrative in a series of scenes and use “ordinary historical narration” as little as possible.

Dialogue: Quote copious verbal interplay among characters. Dialogue is the easiest prose to read “and the quickest to reveal character.”

Details: The careful use of details that reveal “one’s rank or aspirations, everything from dress and furniture to . . . speech, how one talks to the strong, to the weak, to the sophisticated, to the naïve . . .”

POV: Point of view that puts the reader “inside the mind of someone other than the writer.”

“Journalists no longer argue about the New Journalism—I mean, how many decades can you keep arguing about something that calls itself ‘new’?” Wolfe writes. “Instead, a new generation of journalists, writing books and magazine articles, have simply appropriated the techniques however they please and are turning out brilliant work—in fact, the best of contemporary American literature, taken as a whole. I could mention more names, but consider just these two and you will know what I mean immediately: Michael Lewis and Mark Bowden.”

Grandpappy Wolfe has taken a lot of credit here, deservedly so, and yet one begins to wonder if he totally missed the latest posse of literary journalists following in the tracks of the late David Foster Wallace. But Wolfe goes on:

To this day newspaper editors resist the idea, but they desperately need their reporters to adopt the Lewis and Bowden approach. It is not that it produces pretty writing—though indeed it does. They need such reporters and writers to provide the emotional reality of the news, for it is the emotions, not the facts, that most engage and excite readers and in the end are the heart of most stories. . . .

. . . [E]very newspaper editor in the United States is asking, “How can this newspaper be saved?” They should be asking, how can we get to the emotional heart of our stories? Yet only a few newspaper editors are considering any such thing—not knowing that it is the question of the hour, and that this is the eleventh hour.

Criticizing newspaper editors is good mean fun, and I agree about emotion, but I find Wolfe’s principles incomplete. It seems the best essays do so much more than present scenes, dialogue, details, and someone else’s point of view—and so do magazine articles, which some people are now labeling essays if they’re successfully personal. For instance, in the New Yorker recently (December 19 & 25, 2011) critic James Woods reviews John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection Pulphead, made of pieces that sprang from GQ assignments (and available there on line) and gigs for other magazines, and calls them “essays.”

Woods does this, strangely in my view, by comparing Sullivan’s work to fiction while attacking both the “perceived conservatism” of contemporary short stories and the flaws of Sullivan’s putative nonfiction storytelling model, Mr. Wallace. For example:

Sullivan . . . has been compared to Tom Wolfe and David Foster Wallace. But he is kinder than the former, and less neurotic than the latter (whose own compassionate sensitivity got blocked by obsessive self-consciousness, or, when unblocked, sometimes emerged as outright sentimentality).

Amen on the big bad Wolfe, James, but nice drive-by on DFW. I suppose Wallace has reached Parnassus, so that criticism can be levied without citing evidence: “If you don’t know WTF I am talking about, it is because you are not well read.” For me, Wallace’s magazine journalism is superior to Wolfe’s because he is warmer while also having more interesting and less political observations, flowing from the fact that he has at least ten IQ points on Wolfe. On Wolfe! Imagine that. Is it possible? The hell of it is that DFW really was smarter than almost anyone.

But, unlike Wolfe, Wallace didn’t present himself as a Master of the Universe; he didn’t ape the halt and lame, though he did have sport with them—and with himself, too. He exposed himself in his reportage in a way Wolfe would never do and never did. Thus Woods dubs him an essayist, while sidestepping labeling Wolfe. Maybe because Wolfe didn’t reveal himself, but appropriated others’ supposed points of view, he’s more obviously and only a journalist.

Woods joins Geoff Dyer, author of Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (and Dyer’s unmentioned fanboy David Shields), in expressing weariness at the techniques that the bright-eyed Wolfe dragged back into the foul cave of journalism:

One knows exactly what Dyer means by novelization—it’s the clanking train of novelistic grammar (the plots, the formulas, the scenes, the “conflict,” the dialogue, the so-called “telling details.” Roland Barthes spent a lifetime subtly exposing the artifice of this artifice; sometimes he just called it “Fiction,” as if indicating the entire monstrous novelizing urge. . . .

So the contemporary essay is often to be seen engaged in acts of apparent anti-novelization: in place of plot, there is drift, or the fracture of numbered paragraphs; in place of a frozen verisimilitude, there may be a sly and knowing movement between reality and fictionality; in place of the impersonal author of standard-issue third-person realism, the authorial self pops in and out of the picture, with a liberty hard to pull off in fiction.

Where does this contempt—for fiction on the one hand, traditional journalism on the other—lead?

There’s a huge flap going on right now over John D’Agata’s fabrications in his “lyric essays,” presented in the form of journalism, that alter facts (the day of a boy’s suicide, verifiable numbers recast for better “rhythm”). (Laura Miller’s Salon take is here.) D’Agata seems to have set himself up as the Andy Kaufman of nonfiction: he’s smarter than everyone, and is putting all of us on.

Is D’Agata an outlier who’ll help us find the center? We used to know what we thought journalism was. Apparently, when we weren’t looking, it mated with the essay. And to boot, it seems we’re running out of ways to label nonfiction’s messy genres. Woods has tried to clarify things momentarily, at least for himself, but there’ll be another furious mashup soon that causes everyone to scratch their heads.

At least we’ve lived to see Tom Wolfe, journalism’s three-piece radical, become the fuddy duddy he really always was. I still like his four rules, as far as they go, but it’s interesting that he left out the journalist-as-writer—which is to say, as human being—from his decoction of prose verities. Wolfe’s journalist was a smirking chameleon. DFW’s work restored a moral dimension to personal magazine journalism; he stood before us with a persona seemingly closer to his naked human—and therefore wounded—self. D’Agata, a child prodigy, flaunts his contempt for his audience’s lumpenprole expectations, and stands utterly alone.

John McPhee, who never considered himself a New Journalist, meanwhile keeps writing his personally astringent and intricately structured “essays” or “articles” or “stories” or “pieces”—whatever he or his magazine, The New Yorker, calls them—in his eighth decade. I think both sides still claim him.

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Filed under emotion, essay-narrative, honesty, journalism, modernism/postmodernism, scene, teaching, education

Fairness & John McPhee’s ‘Archdruid’

[H]uman judgment tells you what to do in journalism—not god or the rule book or the facts. That’s not a trivial point: journalism is saturated with judgment, and a lot of that judgment belongs to the individual journalist. The trouble arises (and this is the whole reason we have the bias debate) because American journalists some time ago took refuge in objectivity, and began to base their authority on a claim to have removed bias from the news.—Jay Rosen

“What’s with you ex-newspaper guys, so angry at newspapers?” the memoirist asked me. She had written for twenty years for The New Yorker. I’d been foaming at the mouth over the peculiar frustrations a newspaper reporter can feel from practicing the conventions of the objective style. “Newspapers,” she said, “are a great training ground for writers.”

“Yes, they are,” I said. “But I’ll try to explain. Remember in the 1960s the incident where a Times reporter who was covering school desegregation in Arkansas rescued a little black girl from a white mob? He pulled her into his car. If you’d been covering that story for The New Yorker, your colleagues would have slapped you on the back. You might even have written about how it felt to save her. He was criticized for getting involved in the story.”

That silenced her, though she shot me a cool look. I don’t think she understood—I don’t, either. But I do know that the writer’s task is to become ever more human; in America, at least, the journalist’s task has been to figure out what a journalist would do. And good luck with that, because most of the craft’s conventions aren’t spelled out but, rather, sensed and sussed and absorbed.

All this comes back, my conversation with the New Yorker writer turned memoirist and my fraught relationship with objectivity, whenever I visit Jay Rosen’s Press Think blog, subtitled “Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine,” which worries the subject—deliciously painfully for me—like a tongue probing a sore loose tooth.

The objective style would scrub the writer from her prose; it relies on a “he said/she said” format with little or no authorial intervention. Newswriters rarely may reveal their impressions or unveil their hypotheses; they must find sources who’ll speak for them. The objective style exists partly for good, or at least for practical, reasons. And it can lead to brilliant public service reportage, partly because of the rigor and even the cruelty of its constraints. (I once tried to teach a middle-aged lawyer in a reporting class how to build a case journalistically and failed spectacularly—I couldn’t get across how it’s done and merely enraged a man who already knew how to make an argument, at least in his world.)

In the early 1980s, unhappy with my crass editors at a Florida newspaper, I read books and diagnosed their problem as micro-ethics: I was convinced that they’d print, during riots, instructions on how to make a Molotov cocktail—in the interest of public knowledge, of course—and this narrowness was an outgrowth of the objective style. As for me, I read John Merrill’s books on existential journalism and liked the notion of the journalist revealing himself but trying to be fair. Ted Williams wrote a great article around 1980 for Audubon on fishing tournaments, which he revealed he despised. But the piece was fair and even sympathetic to the participants in this activity he openly deplored. I doubted this model would never fly in newspapers—too many time and space constraints, plus reporters functioned not as free agents—as writers, as in magazines—but rather as representatives of an institution. Okay, but it seemed sad that the deracinnated style of reporters on the news side, pursuing miscreants, bled perniciously into the features section and even constrained columnists.

Over several more years I got good at the objective style, but a stone of discontent had lodged in my breast. Once, frustrated by the low level of discussion about writing at a newspaper conference, I wrote an essay, “Traces of the Writer at Work: Overcoming the Enshrinement of Craft in Journalism,” and argued passionately—to myself, for the essay wasn’t published, or submitted—that the profession’s inability to acknowledge the reporter-as-writer was deforming and retarding. Of course even journalists covering school board meetings feel their work is creative—it is—but the objective format itself denies this, specifically that the work is shaped; meanwhile readers sense it must be the product of selection rather than of mere transcription and can become bored, suspicious, hostile. I believed, and still do, that the objective format allows reporters and editors, who’ve followed their “rules” after all, to abdicate responsibility for how they operate and for what they publish.

But not necessarily. It can be done usefully and well.

And Exhibit A in the complexity of this subject, the use of the self in journalism, is John McPhee’s brilliant Encounters with the Archdruid. McPhee went on wilderness hiking and raft trips with legendary preservationist David Brower and three of his sworn enemies, men who develop pristine islands for golf courses and condos, who mine iconic mountains for copper, and who dam wild rivers for boaters and hydroelectric power. Presented as the ultimate tree-hugger, the top druid of the book’s title, Brower is a fascinating figure. But so are the hard-nosed, hard-fisted men of the world who grind their teeth over Brower’s tactics (he’ll lie to the public if it helps save one scrap of wilderness). And they point out, We need to live somewhere, we need minerals, and we need power.

McPhee, known for his reticence about using his persona overtly in his work, set up these encounters in which sparks fly, though he doesn’t bother discussing that obvious point. His admiration and affection is palpable both for Brower and the men he’s picked to accompany and argue with Brower. More to the point: McPhee refuses to take a side. He lets Brower and his foes each have their say. Having presented the complexity of his topic, human need vs. environmental preservation, McPhee throws the burden onto the reader to make her own decision. Partisans on both sides have attacked the book for its bias. I’ve read it several times and it’s impossible to discern McPhee’s position. I believe he must side with Brower, who, though an extremist, makes the compelling case that we should refuse to molest the tiny percentage of wilderness that remains comparatively untouched.

But that’s the position I’ve come to, and I can’t blame McPhee for it. In Encounters with the Archdruid he goes beyond my ideal of a forthright existential journalism into a Zen-like “objectivity” that, paradoxically, places the existential burden of taking a position on the reader. It’s impossible to engage with Encounters and remain a mere voyeur. It’s an amazing performance. Of course McPhee, as a writer (an inquiring and shaping intelligence), saturates the book. But he refuses to guide the reader to a conclusion, beyond the arguments and evidence and personalities he presents.

The book, as rare and risky as its approach is, complicates my feelings about the objective style. (All successful examples of which, I believe, are based on deeply subjective decisions.) And McPhee’s restrained use here of self—so intrinsic to writing, as to any art—stands as a corrective model to the contrary approach in journalistic narratives: excessive “I” deployment when the writer’s role is already obvious and, anyway, he’s orchestrated the whole shebang.

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Filed under honesty, journalism, subjectivity

Writing by the ‘dangerous method’

A train station near Ravenna, Italy, May 2010

Frankly, I thought I knew how to write, but it turned out I didn’t, and I don’t. I don’t. I get to learn it over and over and over. It isn’t supposed to be easy. It is supposed to be hard and the process of making art and the product is worth all the energy that you put into it. It is what matters. It is a noble goal. Even if you never attain it, which is true for most of us, it’s life-enhancing to try.“—Jo Ann Beard, in an interview with Michael Gardner in Mary

On my recent European trip I dipped again into Writing with Power, finding it dense but savoring Peter Elbow’s hard-earned insights. He’d been such a poor writer that he had to drop out of graduate school, only returning years later. If he’d been a natural, he probably would not have noticed how he actually wrote successfully, when he did. Pre-outlining didn’t work for him, either.

Elbow advocates timed free-writing—ten-minute nonstop bursts to empty our heads of junk, to find nuggets, to warm up, to tap creativity, or to explore topics we’re writing about, like Aunt Mary’s screened porch in summer. He comes closer than anyone does to convincing me to freewrite. For instance, I’m a sucker when he gets all mystical and credits freewriting both with reducing writers’ legendary resistance to writing and also with preventing them from conquering their resistance. Here’s a sample of his thinking on this from Chapter Two of Writing with Power:

To write is to overcome a certain resistance: you are trying to wrestle a steer to the ground, to wrestle a snake into a bottle, to overcome a demon that sits in your head. To succeed in writing or making sense is to overpower that steer, that snake, that demon. But not kill it.

This myth explains why some people who write fluently and perhaps even clearly—they say just what they mean in adequate, errorless words—are really hopelessly boring to read. There is no resistance in their words; you cannot feel any force being overcome, any orneriness. No surprises. The language is too abjectly obedient. When writing is really good, on the other hand, the words themselves lend some of their energy to the writer. The writer is controlling words he can’t turn his back on without danger of being scratched or bitten.

You’ve got to love a guy who comes up with stuff like that. In one of his chapters on the pros and cons of various writing processes, I discovered that I use the “dangerous method,” which means trying to make perfect words, sentences, and scenes as you go. The problem with this, he says, is that writing’s two major components, the creative and the critical, are at odds. They are too different. He thinks the editing mind being employed too early blocks writers or turns their prose wooden.

It would be hard to change my ways, however, and for now at least I’m not even going to try. For one thing the dangerous method is kind of working. Granted, I’ve ended up cutting hundreds of pages from my memoir that I’d been polishing for years. But lots of famous writers seem to use the dangerous method, or some variation. Recently I read that someone, Joan Didion I think, used to retype the entire essay she was working on every day. And based on Scribbly Jane’s recent post on John McPhee’s interview with Paris Review, it appears he stews and procrastinates all day, then sits down at the eleventh hour and taps out one perfect page. John McPhee! In its obituary for William Styron, The New York Times reported on his method:

[I]t was an unconventional routine he stuck to: sleep until noon; read and think in bed for another hour or so; lunch with Rose around 1:30; run errands, deal with the mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into work until 4. Then up to the workroom to write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words are completed; have cocktails and dinner with the family and friends at 8 or 9; and stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music.

My personal excuse for trying to make everything right as I go is that that’s how I achieve Elbow’s holy grails of discovery and of experiencing what I am writing about. He’d probably say I’m just polishing and could spend that time creating, and he’d probably be right.

Elblow’s discussion of such intangibles reveals that his concern isn’t with nuts-and-bolts craft but with process—and, really, ultimately, with the writer’s psyche. Writing does seem to me to be a profound struggle with the self—or at least it is for me. Facing the blank page with the Self and all that. Who am I? Who was I? Why did I do that, say that, fail to do that?

This returns me to the quote at the start of my last post; but if writing is not, at base, a set of skills, what is it? Some time ago, when I knew more about writing, I tried to answer this in my post “Between self and story.” This time, I’ll return to Clear and Simple as the Truth, whose authors, Francis- Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, say that writers’ “verbal artifacts” mask something deeper, more fundamental and conceptual going on than the mere arrangement of words. They say:

Great painters are often less skillful than mediocre painters; it is their concept of painting, not their skills, that defines their activity. Similarly a foreigner may be less skillful than a native speaker at manipulating tenses or using subjunctives, but nonetheless be an incomparably better writer. Intellectual activities generate skills, but skills do not generate intellectual activities.

Words on the page come from the self, and, for most writers, getting them there regularly seems to require a struggle with the self, of overcoming resistances arising from fear and confusion. I think a writer has got to like making sentences. This work is about seeing what comes out of you and, at the sentence level, trying to make it sturdy and sometimes beautiful.

Then revising, forever. And dealing with resistance and the exciting-depressing realization that any new project worth doing is going to make its own unique and otherwise perplexing demands. But I believe, and fervently hope, that writing, like other complex activities, rewires our brains. I think we do get better with practice, even if writing doesn’t seem to get much easier.

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Filed under freewriting, revision, working method

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

The glory of nonfiction

from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s interview with James Norton for Flak Magazine

“I believe in the glory of nonfiction. I don’t believe in the hierarchy of genres that seems to prevail in the United States. Is the novel the higher calling, or is poetry the higher calling? Frankly I think nonfiction is equally great and equally profound—and often gloriously better. I’m a convert to my own genre, is the way I’d say it. You meet a lot of nonfiction writers who feel their next step ought to be to write a novel, and for a lot of them, it’s just not a good idea. The number who have actually pulled it off is actually very small.”

“My influences as a writer come out of a lifetime as a reader. It draws from all over the map. It comes from the real training I got as a Ph.D. scholar, reading 18th-century and 17th-century prose in depth. It comes really out of a love of all sorts of writers—at the moment, John McPhee and Joan Didion, essays by Richard Rodriguez, some by Annie Dillard . . . It’s a very eclectic range of influences, and they have more to do with what I hear in my ear than what I see in nature.”

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Filed under creative nonfiction, Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, journalism, NOTED, poetry, research