To say that John McPhee left me alone in the Pine Barrens on a cold Friday night in December, 1967, might be a bit of literary license. I wasn’t really in the Pine Barrens. I was in a Princeton University dormitory room engrossed in an article about the Pine Barrens written by McPhee for the New Yorker magazine.
I was also not alone. Two other Princeton juniors were in the room with me — the last three candidates standing in what had been a prolonged election to determine the new chairman (the title then used for the top position) of the Daily Princetonian. When the door finally opened and the outgoing chairman, Todd Simonds, walked in and said “congratulations, Rich,” I needed a second or two to get my head out of the Pine Barrens and back to the moment at hand.
To say that John McPhee had spent two weeks in the summer of 1966, spending most of his time lying on a picnic table in his backyard staring up at the sky and searching for a way to begin that article on the Pine Barrens and never managing to write a single word in those two weeks might also be a bit of literary license. Except that in McPhee’s case the statement describing the two-week writer’s block is most certainly true, literally true.
After listening to McPhee expound last week on the reporting and organizational effort he pours into his writing, I believe the two-week writer’s block on the picnic table was probably no exaggeration. As he told a standing room audience in McCosh 50 on the Princeton campus, “I had spent about eight months driving down from Princeton day after day, or taking a sleeping bag and a small tent. I had done all the research I was going to do . . . I had read all the books I was going to read, and scientific papers, and a doctoral dissertation.
“I had assembled enough material to fill a silo,” he continued, possibly exercising a little literary license at this point, “and now I had no idea what to do with it. The piece would ultimately consist of some 5,000 sentences, but for those two weeks I couldn’t write even one. If I was blocked by fear, I was also stymied by inexperience. I had never tried to put so many different components — characters, description, dialogue, narrative, set pieces, humor, history, science, and so forth — into a single package.”
From that starting point McPhee took off on a whirlwind tour that not only provided an insider’s view into the workings of journalism in its glory days, but also gave a sense of the writer at work — reporting, organizing (a key part of the process for McPhee), writing, rewriting, and fact checking in a career that included a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for his book, “Annals of the Former World.”
At the Princeton lecture, which served to mark his 40th year as a teacher of a course on “Creative Non-Fiction,” McPhee relied in part on readings from his recent series of New Yorker articles on the process of writing. Sitting at one of those classic student chairs with the sideboard in the 107-year-old McCosh lecture hall, I took notes feverishly.
But what I was really there for was the question-and-answer period. A little more than 40 years ago I had shown up back in Princeton, after a few years at Time magazine and then trying my hand as a public relations writer for an environmental planning firm — a job from which I had been fired after less than a year of butting heads with the firm’s owner. My job in Princeton was to be the assistant to the man who served as the first professor in the chair that would later be held by McPhee. The job would only last one semester, and I saw it as a springboard to a career as a freelance writer.
Before I took the plunge I sought out the big league writers in town and asked them for advice. One was Brock Brower, a novelist and a prolific writer for such national magazines as Esquire, Life, Harper’s, and the New York Times magazine. Brower had two good pieces of advice: As a freelance writer, always competing against those established staff writers, the important thing is not to be the first one to do a story, but rather the last one. And, Brower added, the reporting is never really done until you have sat down and had a drink with your subject. That’s often when the real story comes out.
The other was John McPhee. His advice could be put to good use at once. When you are just starting out in this business, McPhee told me, try your hand at all sorts of writing: straight news, long features, fiction, non-fiction, whatever. I remember this line, not quoted precisely word for word after all these years: “You may struggle to write a 3,000-word magazine feature, but then you turn out to be a great 300-word editorial writer. You will never know unless you try.”
So I looked forward to a similar question today, and whether the answer would be different more than 40 years later. Meanwhile I feverishly took notes as McPhee shared some memorable moments from his long writing career. The possible first spark of interest in journalism came when he was about 10 or so, playing the role of ball boy for the Princeton University football team, for which his father served as team doctor. On one cold and rainy Saturday, he retrieved the ball after point-after-touchdown kicks. Looking up to the top of Palmer Stadium, he saw the sportswriters, enjoying the game while they were protected from the elements and warmed by electric heaters in the press box. Maybe he should be a writer.
As McPhee recounted his approach, however, you realized that writers have their own elements to face. McPhee spoke in detail about his struggles to find the structure in the wealth of material gathered through reporting, and how on several occasions he purposefully chose a structural form first, and then tried to find a reporting opportunity to match the structure. “I had been doing all these profiles,” he said, referring to a body of work that most writers would give a small body part to be able to claim. “After 10 years of that I was desperate to escalate — to get out of that rut.”
Regardless of the structure, McPhee’s writing process includes the drudgery of typing up handwritten notes. “That could take many weeks” for some stories but it was worth it, forcing him to “run all the raw material through my mind.”
The notes, in turn, had to be read and re-read, structural elements identified, and then literally cut apart with scissors and rearranged in related clusters. “If it sounds mechanical,” McPhee said, “the effect was just the opposite. The procedure concentrated my thoughts. It painted me into a corner, but it also freed me to write.”
As McPhee’s presentation approached the 50-minute mark, he referred to his low profile on the literary scene. “I work in a fake medieval turret” on the university campus, he said. And when he finally comes out and bumps into old friends they will ask the inevitable question: What is he working on now? “That’s the reason I don’t come out very often,” he said.
At one point in his career, no doubt when he was working on a piece that appeared on March 12, 2007, in the New Yorker, he was able to answer the dreaded question with a one-word answer that stopped most further discussion. “Chalk,” he would say.
Even one of his four daughters got the reluctant celebrity treatment when she — “innocently” — asked the question. As he summarized his response to the McCosh audience: “What am I working on? How is it going? Since you asked, at this point I have no confidence in this piece of writing.. . . And I’ve barely started. After four months and nine days of staring into this monitor for what has probably amounted in aggregate to something closely approaching a thousand hours, that’s enough. I’m going fishing.”
With that he waved to the audience and headed to the exit. Nobody in this audience would ask what he was up to now, or any other question, for that matter. I walked out feeling pretty good about asking my question 40-plus years ago, and ready to write a column that would end with that answer from way back when.
* * *
A day passed, and the reporter in me made me send McPhee an E-mail. I did have one little question. The next morning I got a call from McPhee. As it turns out, the advice he gave me four decades ago — about trying everything — still rings true today. “You don’t go to college to see if you are a novelist,” McPhee said. “You just try to write a novel.”
But he also had another suggestion for a writer just starting out. “It’s a good idea to develop a target that someday you will write a book.” The writer can then do what he can along the way to add grist to the mill for that book. “Having that ultimate target is also a bit of an anchor,” said McPhee, adding that he didn’t think books would “go away.” Good writing always “finds its outlets.”
I didn’t dare ask McPhee what he was working on now, but I did express the hope that the New Yorker articles on writing would eventually appear as a book. They would, he said, but he still had more pieces to write and he was in no hurry to complete them. “I love having pieces to do,” he said.