This article was originally published in the September 2017 Princeton Echo.
If you or anyone you know has ever struggled with putting your thoughts into writing, then you will find special value in John McPhee’s new book on the writing process, “Draft No. 4,” published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Inside this 192-page book, built from eight essays that appeared in the New Yorker, McPhee addresses — in ways that may prove memorable for many of us who struggle with the rules of writing — some of the common grammar pitfalls: When to use “which” as opposed to “that,” how it is possible to change the meaning of a sentence by including or omitting a pair of simple commas, and the difference between “further” and “farther.”
But this is not just for writers, in the same way that the New York Times bestseller, “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen,” by another member of the New Yorker family, Mary Norris, is not just for fussy grammarians. As McPhee makes clear, there are many paths to success for any writer. And the best path is dependent on both the material being written about and the writer’s line of attack. But there are ways to think about the writing process, and McPhee opens his notebook and his soul to share his creative experiences.
McPhee’s career, which includes a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for his book on the geological underpinnings of North America, “Annals of the Former World,” has taken him around the world. Along with a handful of other writers, including some of the students he has taught at Princeton University, he has created a literary genre, creative nonfiction. “What is creative about nonfiction?” McPhee asks in the new book. “The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth.
“Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”
For all his acclaim and his lofty connections (the subject of his first book, Bill Bradley, the basketball star and U.S. Senator, remains a close friend, and alumni of his long-running class at Princeton include at least two former managing editors of Time magazine and the current editor of the New Yorker) McPhee still lives and works in Princeton, the town where he was born 86 years ago.
And, as he pointed out in a 2007 interview with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, many of his lifelong interests can be traced back to his school days and summer experiences. “If you took a list of all the things I’ve ever written and put a check mark beside the ones relating to something I was interested in when I was in college or before, 90 percent would be checked,” he said.
Sports? As the son of the physician for the Princeton football team, McPhee lived at 21 Maple Street, a short walk from Palmer Stadium, where he served as ball boy, retrieving footballs after extra point tries. He even made the freshman basketball team at Princeton and became friends and later roommates with Dick Kazmaier, the Heisman Trophy winner in 1951. Sports, check.
Science? As a teenager he worked part-time as an assistant in the university’s biology department. “My job was killing fruit flies after they finished experiments,” he told an interviewer for the Paris Review. Science, check.
The natural environment? As he once wrote in the New Yorker, “I grew up in a summer camp — Keewaydin — whose specialty was canoes and canoe travel. It was at the north end of Lake Dunmore, about eight miles from Middlebury, in Vermont. In addition to ribs, planking, quarter-thwarts, and open gunwales, you learned to identify rocks, ferns, and trees.” Natural environment, check.
Writing? Even though he never wrote for the high school newspaper, a significant portion of McPhee’s writing and editing tools were forged during that period as well. “In my first three years at Princeton High School, in the late 1940s,” he writes, “my English teacher was Olive McKee, whose self chosen ratio of writing assignments to reading assignments seems extraordinary in retrospect and certainly different from the syllabus of the guy who taught us senior year. Mrs. McKee made us do three pieces of writing a week. . . We could write anything we wanted to, but each composition had to be accompanied by a structural outline, which she told us to do first. . . The idea was to build some form of blueprint before working it out in sentences and paragraphs.
“Mrs. McKee liked theatrics (she was also the school’s drama coach), and she had us read our pieces in class to the other kids. She made no attempt to stop anybody from booing, hissing, or wadding paper and throwing it at the reader, all of which the kids did. In this crucible, I learned to duck while reading. I loved Mrs. McKee, and I loved that class.”
So writing, check that one, too.
‘Draft No. 4,” McPhee’s title, comes from his habit of writing, re-writing, and re-writing some more — the fourth draft, in which he fiddles with individual word choices, is his favorite part of the process. While it’s not a how-to book, the practicing or aspiring writer can take away a lot of practical advice. For example:
On interviewing techniques. “Whatever you do, don’t rely on memory. Don’t even imagine that you will be able to remember verbatim in the evening what people said during the day. And don’t squirrel notes in a bathroom — that is, run off to the john and write surreptitiously what someone said back there with the cocktails. From the start, make clear what you are doing and who will publish what you will write. Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.”
On dealing with recorded speech. “Once captured, words have to be dealt with. You have to trim them and straighten them to make them transliterate from the fuzziness of speech to the clarity of print. Speech and print are not the same, and a slavish presentation of recorded speech may not be as representative of a speaker as dialogue that has been trimmed and straightened. Please understand: You trim and straighten — take the ‘um’s, ‘uh’s, and ‘uh but um’s out, the false starts — but you do not make it up.”
On developing your own voice. “Young writers generally need a long while to assess their own variety, to learn what kinds of writers they most suitably and effectively are.” McPhee, for example, spent a year after his college days as a freelancer, writing one-hour, stand-alone plays for live television, some of which ended up on NBC.
On working with editors: “Editors are counselors and can do a good deal more for writers in the first-draft stage than at the end of the publishing process. Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help. ”
On those grammar points: “Ordinarily,” McPhee writes, “the conjunction ‘that’ would introduce a restrictive clause” and “which” would introduce a nonrestrictive clause. His examples: This is a baseball, which is spherical and white. And this is the baseball that Babe Ruth hit out of the park. But note McPhee’s use of the word “ordinarily.” No less a light than William Shawn, the longtime editor of the New Yorker’, alerted McPhee to “unusual and special circumstances” when the word “which” could be used at the head of a restrictive clause. McPhee searched 100,000 words or so of his own writing and found three instances in which he had employed it. (If you are still curious, you really need to read this book.)
About those commas. In 2002 McPhee found himself fact checking an article on the history of the shad, which would lead to the book, “The Founding Fish.” He referred to a child of William Penn: “Penn’s daughter Margaret fished in the Delaware . . .” Should there be commas before and after the daughter’s name? “The presence or absence of commas would, in effect, say whether Penn had one daughter or more than one. The commas . . . were not just commas; they were facts.” And, in fact, Margaret was one of several daughters — no commas were used.
John McPhee’s “Draft No. 4 — On the Writing Process” will be published September 5. For — um — a — uh — further discussion with McPhee himself, look — um, uh — farther down on your calendar: On Tuesday, October 24, McPhee will appear at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street with several former students.