John McPhee on Writing at the New Yorker

I have been reading the New Yorker for nearly 25 years now, subscribing even when I really could afford neither the time nor the money to be doing so. But it is like a friend now, and I really can’t do without it. The Economist routinely gets chopped when household austerity comes into play; the New Yorker…I just can’t.  John McPhee’s pieces have rolled in over the years, always welcome, even though he routinely picks topics I am not interested in at first glance: geology, fish, basketball stars, forests. He has over the past year been releasing long pieces on writing that you must immediately read if you do have access to their archives.

Progression.
Editor and publisher.
Structure–mind-blowing. I still don’t get it.

and this week’s:

Draft Number 4–on blocks and the difficulty of the first draft.

My favorite part of this last selection thus far is McPhee’s description about how different his two daughters are as writers. It serves as a nice reminder for PhD mentors that every student is different because every writer is different:

Jenny grew up to write novels, and at this point has published three. She keeps everything close-hauled, says nothing and reveals nothing, as she goes along. I once asked her if she was thinking about starting another book and she said “I finished it last week.” Her sister, Martha, two years younger, has written four novels. Martha calls me up nine times a day to tell me that writing is impossible, that she’s not cut out to do it, that  she’ll never finish what she is working on, and so forth and so on, et cetera et cetera, and I, who am probably disintegrating a third of the way throughout an impossible first draft, am supposed to turn into the Rock of Gibraltar. The talking rock: “Just stay at it; perseverance will change things.” “You’re so unhappy you sound authentic to me” “You can’t make a fix unless you know what is broken.”

This is about as good a description of mentoring as I have ever seen; taking on need as it arises, no matter how it manifests, and no matter where your own need is at the moment, even as your own fears about the process are thundering in your head.

Another bit of brilliance:

One falls into projects like slipping into caves, and then wonders how to get out. To feel such doubt is a part of the picture–important and inescapable.

And yet another:

Jenny said “I can’t seem to finish anything.”
I said, “Neither can I.”

Word to your mother.

One thought on “John McPhee on Writing at the New Yorker

  1. will howarth edited the first “john mcphee reader” and wrote a wonderful foreword that focused on how jm actually structured/wrote his pieces: a remarkable description of an extraordinary process

Comments are closed.