Draft No. 4: On The Writing Process, by John McPhee
I must admit that my earliest reading of the author gave me a somewhat slanted perspective of who he was as a writer. It so happened that my local library in Tampa, Florida (where I lived when I first became familiar with the author) had books by the author that were about popular science, specifically geology, and so it was that I associated the author with that sort of writing in exclusion to others. Fortunately, it so happens that I have found many more books by the author that demonstrate him to be a skillful and often entertaining writer in narrative nonfiction, some of it with a scientific base, but other aspects of it which deal with stories about athletes and politicians and truck drivers. This particular book offers a pleasant look at the author as well as a self-aware essayist discussing how his own writing was influenced by its editing (as he was a longtime freelance writer for the New Yorker) and how he approaches the matter of creating nonfiction writing, proving the author to be an unexpected authority on the issue of creativity that is well worth paying attention to. As is often the case, I found an unexpected resonance with the author given my own writings.
This short book of less than 200 pages gives several essays that show the author’s approach to the writing process and how he manages to stay creative, and it is definitely a worthwhile book to read whether or not you are familiar with McPhee’s writing as a whole, much of which springs from his own personal interests. The author begins with “Progression,” where he shows how he conceives his works and seeks the right source material to fill out his plans that provide a compelling and fascinating approach. After that comes “Structure,” where the author talks about how he chooses the spine of his work and the way that flashbacks and shifts in chronology will provide excitement and drama to a story, even if it is not obvious to the reader. “Editors & Publisher” show the way that McPhee’s writing was influenced and affected by the people who read and published his writings, and how he had to fight sometimes to express things in the earthy way his sources sometimes described them. “Elicitation” provides a humorous discussion of how it was that the author was able to interview others successfully and deal with sources in a thoughtful manner that provided for sources’ dignity as well as the telling of stories. “Frame Of Reference” then shows the way that we borrow vividness by the use of metaphor and comparison but then can pay that back with vivid discussion of our own. “Checkpoints” shows the importance of fact checking to nonfiction writing, the title essay shows the process of editing and iteration by which the author’s writing is honed and writer’s block is vanquished, and “Omission” shows the author struggling with cuts and with the desirability of the reader filling in some blanks for oneself.
While each of the essays individually only covers a small part of the writing practice, together as a whole the essays present an entertaining and very instructive discussion of the writing practice. The author begins with a discussion of how it is that our interests and suggestions from others lead to the creation of works, while later essays show how these ideas are structured and formed into a compelling piece, how they are edited by others, how source material is obtained, often through interviews, how drafts and fact-checking help refine the practice, and how it is that a finished piece of writing then becomes something that the reader brings his or her own perspective and knowledge to. The author notes rather humorously that many writers (himself included) use comparisons that are not in the frame of reference of others and so have to add some level of vividness to make a piece of writing sing, such as talking about a forgotten actor and mentioning his “manic energy,” which can be understood by those who do not know anything about the actor being compared to. Overall, this work is a fantastic piece of essayism by a writer who has earned through his own intense productivity a fair amount of credibility in speaking about his writing process to others.