Writing with the Master – The Magic of John McPhee

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mcphee

If I could study non-fiction writing with anyone, it would be John McPhee.

He is a staff writer at The New Yorker, a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and he won that award in 1999 for Annals of the Former World.  Even more impressive to me, he can turn any subject — truly, any subject — into a page turner.

An entire book about oranges? Check. Bark canoes? Done.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve raved about his books like a sweaty-palmed fan boy.  Personal favorites include the bite-sized Levels of the Game (about one epic tennis match), Coming into the Country (about the Alaskan wilderness), and his amazing collections of short stories (don’t miss Brigade de Cuisine in this one).

Now, a confession.  I did have the chance to study with McPhee as an undergrad at Princeton.  I still have all of the class notes.  I consider it one of the biggest strokes of luck in my life.  And… simply mentioning it makes me nervous as hell that I’m going to leave a typo in this post.  Besmirching the fine legacy of Professor McPhee!

Translated into my native Long Island-ese: If I fuck up anything in this post, it’s all my fault, and I didn’t listen to Professor McPhee well enough. He tried his best.

Now, moving on…

The below piece on McPhee is written by Joel Achenbach, a fellow graduate of McPhee’s class. Joel is now a staff writer for The Washington Post and the author of six books.

The profile recently appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and I absolutely had to share it with you. It’s the incredible story of a master writer, master teacher, and fascinating human being I aspire to emulate.  There’s so much to learn from McPhee, and the below is a laugh-out-loud sampling.

I’ve left in the graduation years to preserve the context.

Enjoy!

###

John McPhee ’53 has many moves as a writer, one of which he calls a “gossip ladder” — nothing more than a stack of quotations, each its own paragraph, unencumbered by attribution or context. You are eavesdropping in a crowd. You take these scraps of conversation and put them in a pile. Like this:

“A piece of writing needs to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there.”

“Taking things from one source is plagiarism; taking things from several sources is research.”

“A thousand details add up to one impression.”

“You cannot interview the dead.” 

“Readers are not supposed to see structure. It should be as invisible as living bones. It shouldn’t be imposed; structure arises within the story.”

“Don’t start off with the most intense, scary part, or it will all be anticlimactic from there.”

“You can get away with things in fact that would be tacky in fiction — and stuck on TV at 3 o’clock in the morning. Sometimes the scene is carried by the binding force of fact.”

The speaker in every instance is John McPhee. I assembled this particular ladder from the class notes of Amanda Wood Kingsley ’84, an illustrator and writer who, like me, took McPhee’s nonfiction writing class, “The Literature of Fact,” in the spring of 1982. In February, McPhee will mark 40 years as a Princeton professor, which he has pulled off in the midst of an extraordinarily productive career as a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of more than two dozen books.

When the editor of this magazine asked me to write something about McPhee’s class, I knew it would be the easiest assignment ever, though a little nerve-wracking. It was, because most of McPhee’s former students have saved their class notes and marked-up papers (Marc Fisher ’80: “I’ve never lived anywhere without knowing where my notes from his class are”).

When I meet Rick Klein ’98 at a coffee shop down the block, we examine forensically Rick’s class papers and the McPhee marginalia, the admonitions and praise from a teacher who keeps his pencils sharp. McPhee never overlooked a typo, and when Rick (now the hotshot political director at ABC News) wrote “fowl” instead of “foul,” the professor’s pencil produced a devastating noose.

McPhee’s greatest passion was for structure, and he required that students explain, in a few sentences at the end of every assignment, how they structured the piece. (McPhee noted on a piece Rick wrote about his father: “This is a perfect structure — simple, like a small office building, as you suggest. The relationship of time to paragraphing is an example of what building a piece of writing is all about.”)

Rick reminds me that the class was pass/fail.

“You were competing not for a grade, but for his approval. You were so scared to turn in a piece of writing that John McPhee would realize was dirt. We were just trying to impress a legend,” he says.

Which is the nerve-wracking part, still. He is likely to read this article and will notice the infelicities, the stray words, the unnecessary punctuation, the galumphing syntax, the desperate metaphors, and the sentences that wander into the woods. “They’re paying you by the comma?” McPhee might write in the margin after reading the foregoing sentence. My own student work tended toward the self-conscious, the cute, and the undisciplined, and McPhee sometimes would simply write: “Sober up.”

He favors simplicity in general, and believes a metaphor needs room to breathe. “Don’t slather one verbal flourish on top of another lest you smother them all,” he’d tell his students. On one of Amanda’s papers, he numbered the images, metaphors, and similes from 1 to 11, and then declared, “They all work well, to a greater or lesser degree. In 1,300 words, however, there may be too many of them — as in a fruitcake that is mostly fruit.”

When Amanda produced a verbose, mushy description of the “Oval with Points” sculpture on campus, McPhee drew brackets around one passage and wrote, “Pea soup.”

That one was a famously difficult assignment: You had to describe a piece of abstract art on campus. It was an invitation to overwriting. As McPhee put it, “Most writers do a wild skid, leave the road, and plunge into the dirty river.” Novice writers believe they will improve a piece of writing by adding things to it; mature writers know they will improve it by taking things out. Read More

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Marc Goodman, FBI Futurist, on High-Tech Crime and How to Protect Yourself

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The Tim Ferriss Show with Marc Goodman

“The fact of the matter is, back in 2008, terrorists were using search engines, like Google, to determine who shall live and who shall die. I know it’s a black swan event, but when you’re sharing on Facebook, it’s not just the media and marketing companies that you need to be concerned about. When you share openly, everybody has access to it.” (Tweet It)
– Marc Goodman

[Quick announcement: The Tim Ferriss Show is officially one of iTunes’ “Best of 2014“! Would you or your company like to sponsor the show? Click here for more details.]

Marc Goodman has been a Resident Futurist for the FBI and a senior adviser to Interpol.  He is also author of the much anticipated Future Crimes.

In this episode, we’ll go deep into the digital underground to expose the alarming ways criminals, corporations, and even countries are using emerging technologies against you…and some simple steps you can take to decrease your vulnerability.

To start, 3-D printers can produce AK-47s, bio-terrorists can download the recipe for Spanish flu, and cartels are using fleets of drones to ferry drugs across borders (all of which we touch on), but what else is waiting for you? What else is potentially targeting you right now?

If you want to hear about current and future threats, and simple defensive steps you can take, this interview is for you.

This podcast is brought to you by 99Designs, the world’s largest marketplace of graphic designers. Did you know I used 99Designs to rapid prototype the cover for The 4-Hour Body? Here are some of the impressive results.

This episode is also brought to you by ExOfficio, which I’ve personally used since 2005 or so. They make ultra-lightweight, quick drying, antimicrobial clothing for men and women. Here’s my own ultra-light packing list (scroll down for video), which went viral.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: Have you ever been hacked or cyber-attacked? What practices are you using to mitigate the threat in the future? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Enjoy!

Do you enjoy this podcast? If so, please leave a short review here. It keeps me going…

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Selected Links from the Episode

Show Notes

  • Rapid fire questions [7:45]
  • Marc Goodman’s daily rituals [11:55]
  • Surprising examples of Internet-based crime [13:25]
  • Personalized biological weapons, genetic sequencing, etc. [16:25]
  • 23andMe best practices: paranoia vs. preparedness [22:10]
  • Examining the urban myth (or not?) of personalized biological weapons [26:10]
  • Debunking the myth that terrorists and criminals are simply uneducated [28:10]
  • “Public safety is too important to leave to the professionals.” [35:55]
  • Do you think having iodine tablets and gas masks at home is overkill? [44:05]
  • Kidnapping in the modern world [45:40]
  • The story of Andy Grove and data infiltration in China [50:10]
  • Spear-phishing e-mails and how billions can be lost [52:50]
  • How to Armageddon-proof yourself [54:55]
  • The digital underground and how to access it [57:00]
  • The illicit drug industry and how disruptive technology is a threat to it [1:00:00]
  • On “Narco” R&D budgets, drones, submarines and shock and awe  [1:06:55]
  • Potential threats of artificial intelligence (AI) [1:12:25]
  • The scalable paradigm shift in modern crime [1:15:15]
  • A handful of simple steps to decrease the odds of successful attacks [1:18:55]
  • Low-hanging fruit in terms of security [1:25:25]
  • On cyber crime cottage industries [1:27:40]
  • Why there is a Post-It note on every camera of Marc Goodman’s devices [1:29:05]
  • How the Crowne Casino in Melbourne was hacked for $33 million [1:33:05]

People and Concepts Mentioned (Partial List)

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Bryan Callen on Eating Corgis (Yes, The Dogs) and Improving Creativity

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Tim Ferriss and Bryan Callen discuss craft, comedy and achievement

“There are three things you can’t fake: 1. Fighting, 2. Sex, and 3. Comedy.” (Tweet It)
- Bryan Callen

Alright, this may be the funniest episode yet.

Bryan Callen is a world-class comic and prolific actor. He travels the globe performing stand-up comedy for sold-out audiences, and — in his spare time — regularly appears on shows like Frasier, Entourage, Law & Order, CSI, Sex and the City, Oz, The King of Queens, and How I Met Your Mother.

Bryan is also INCREDIBLY well read.  Don’t miss the show notes and links below.

In this episode, we delve into the craft of comedy, fixing education (or shortcuts within it), habits and tricks for boosting creativity, writing, and the general pursuit of excellence.

And, of course, eating corgis…

Eat a Corgie - Bryan Callen on the Tim Ferriss Show

This podcast is brought to you by 99Designs, the world’s largest marketplace of graphic designers. Did you know I used 99Designs to rapid prototype the cover for The 4-Hour Body? Here are some of the impressive results.

This episode is also brought to you by ExOfficio, which I’ve personally used since 2005 or so. They make ultra-lightweight, quick drying, antimicrobial clothing for men and women. Here’s my own ultra-light packing list (scroll down for video), which went viral.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: Who are your 2-3 favorite comedians? What style or traits make them memorable? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Enjoy!

And PLEASE — Do you enjoy this podcast? If so, please leave a short review here. They’re very important and keep me going.

Subscribe to The Tim Ferriss Show on iTunes.
Non-iTunes RSS feed

Selected Links from the Episode

Show Notes

  • How Bryan Callen and Tim Ferriss started dating [9:45]
  • On fighting, sex, and comedy [10:50]
  • How to create a long-term career in comedy [11:45]
  • On public education [15:45]
  • Bryan Callen’s creative process [23:45]
  • Comics who inspire Bryan [34:05]
  • Bryan’s first great performance [36:50]
  • How Bryan Callen developed his appetite for reading [42:05]
  • Bryan Callen’s first paid gig [47:30]
  • Rapid fire questions: Pilsner, aged wine, politics, pit bulls, hunting, originality, and eating corgis [01:04:45]

People Mentioned

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The Random Show: Hating Tech, Hidden Japanese Gems, Sexual Awkwardness, and More

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This episode of The Random Show is a mind snack… fueled by wine. There are dozens of topics covered in this bromantic session of scatterbrained nonsense.

Like what? To start off: hidden gems in Japan, hating tech, Kevin’s new obsessions (and projects), gifts, books we’re reading, excessive sexual awkwardness, and much more. O-tanoshimi dane!

For all previous episodes of The Random Show, including the infamous China Scam episode, click here.

Can’t see the video above? Click here.

Want audio to listen on the go?  Here you go…

This podcast is brought to you by 99Designs, the world’s largest marketplace of graphic designers. Did you know I used 99Designs to rapid prototype the cover for The 4-Hour Body? Here are some of the impressive results.

This episode is also brought to you by ExOfficio, which I’ve personally used since 2005 or so. They make ultra-lightweight, quick drying, antimicrobial clothing for men and women. Here’s my own ultra-light packing list (scroll down for video), which went viral.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What should other people be more grateful for this Thanksgiving? Perhaps something regularly overlooked? Please share in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Enjoy!

Do you enjoy this podcast? If so, please leave a short review here. It keeps me going…

Subscribe to The Tim Ferriss Show on iTunes.
Non-iTunes RSS feed

Selected Links from the Episode

Abbreviated Show Notes

  • Thoughts on WatchVille  [5:00]
  • The environment and new book recomendations [11:50]
  • Fermented coffee beans [18:45]
  • Tips for ice baths [24:45]
  • Tim’s next big thing (or not) [40:15]
  • How to get involved in the tech scene without tons of capital [42:25]
  • On Influence by Robert Cialdini [45:15]
  • Too Many Cooks video recommendation [49:35]
  • Gratitude this coming Thanksgiving [50:50]

People Mentioned

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Nick Ganju on The Majesty of Ping Pong, Poker, and How to Write Hit Songs

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ping-pong

(Photo: Foxxyz)
“It turns out that writing Tetris on your calculator doesn’t actually win you the cheerleaders.”
-Nick Ganju 

Housekeeping Note: The e-mail subscribers who won the SONOS PLAY:1 (The Best $200 on Sound) are Drew Glaser and Kristopher Chavez. Guys, keep an eye on your inboxes! Are you still not an e-mail subscriber? It’s free, no spam, and I send out awesome VIP exclusives. Click here to sign up, and you can always easily opt out.

In this episode, I talk to my old friend Nick Ganju about ping pong, poker, hit songs, and tackling my most feared subject (oh, the suspense!).

He makes complex subjects seem simple, which is a rare gift.  Nick is one of the few people I consistently ask for advice when trying to acquire tough skills.

Nick is the founder and CTO of ZocDoc, which allows you to find doctors and immediately book appointments online. As CTO, he is responsible for overseeing all software development. It’s a huge job for one of the fastest-growing startups in the US (6+ million monthly users, $95M+ in funding raised to date), and he’s repeatedly proven himself to be a master teacher.

Enjoy!

This podcast is brought to you by 99Designs, the world’s largest marketplace of graphic designers. Did you know I used 99Designs to rapid prototype the cover for The 4-Hour Body? Here are some of the impressive results.

This episode is also brought to you by ExOfficio, which I’ve personally used since 2005 or so. They make ultra-lightweight, quick drying, antimicrobial clothing for men and women. Here’s my own ultra-light packing list (scroll down for video), which went viral.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY:  Have you overcome subjects or skills you initially found super-intimidating? What was the key moment? Please share in the comments.

Do you enjoy this podcast? If so, please leave a short review here. It keeps me going…

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Subscribe to The Tim Ferriss Show on iTunes.
Non-iTunes RSS feed

Selected Links from the Episode

Show Notes

  • ZocDoc stats [6:34]
  • Rewinding the clock, comfort with computer science and global thermo-nuclear war [10:44]
  • What makes the University of Illinois a top computer science school [14:04]
  • “Coachablity” of computer languages and thoughts for those starting in computer science [16:14]
  • How to make it easier to develop high-level math and computer science skills [21:44]
  • Resources and books for optimizing your math/emotional intelligence skills [28:44]
  • Setting objective goals and how Monsters Inc. can help [30:14]
  • How to encourage measurable goal selection and tracking within your team [38:14]
  • Excel spreadsheets? [44:14]
  • Nick Ganju’s favorite movie [53:14]
  • Skill acquisition and the glory of ping pong [55:29]
  • How to practice ping pong when no one is around, plus the most common mistakes [1:02:44]
  • The daily rituals of Nick Ganju [1:05:44]
  • What it means to rid yourself of cognitive biases [1:06:29]
  • Cognitive Biases and how to price anchor like a god [1:11:14]
  • The Bill Gates-like life plan [1:16:04]
  • Rapid Fire Questions: Punchable, frequent plays, and how to get people hooked on music. [1:17:39]
  • Advice for the 20-year old Nick Ganju, or anyone seeking to rapidly develop business skills [1:25:14]
  • Choosing your fist gig or your next gig -> How to get started [1:27:14]

People Mentioned

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Margaret Cho on Comedy, Bisexuality, and The Slow-Carb Diet

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Margaret Cho on the Tim Ferriss Show

“My dog thought I was a singer… because dogs don’t understand standup comedy.”
-Margaret Cho [20:40]

[Housekeeping update: The demand for my $5K Holiday Megabox exceeded expectations, so I’m opening up a few more slots. First come, first served, and deadline is 11:59pm PT today, November 11, 2014. Click here for more details.]

Margaret Cho is a polymath.

She is an internationally acclaimed comic, actress, author, fashion designer and singer-songwriter. Perhaps you’ve seen her on the big screen, or in TV series such as Sex and the City and 30 Rock.

But well before she was on Dancing with the Stars (yes, she’s done that, too), she decided on her comedy career… at the tender age of eight.  The stage has been her constant companion ever since.

In this episode we delve into her comic influences and approaches, bisexuality, slow-carb adventures, and much more. Please indulge me as we dig deep into the lesser-known tricks of the Slow-Carb Diet. Margaret had a lot of detailed questions (she’s followed it for ~3 months), and the answers might help accelerate your own fat loss.  (If you want more, here are several case studies — with pics — who’ve lost 100+ pounds.)

Enjoy!

This podcast is brought to you by 99Designs, the world’s largest marketplace of graphic designers. Did you know I used 99Designs to rapid prototype the cover for The 4-Hour Body? Here are some of the impressive results.

This episode is also brought to you by ExOfficio, which I’ve personally used since 2005 or so. They make ultra-lightweight, quick drying, antimicrobial clothing for men and women. Here’s my own ultra-light packing list (scroll down for video), which went viral.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What’s your favorite curse word — or phrase — and why? Please click here to let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Enjoy!

Who should I interview next? Please let me know on Twitter or in the comments.

Do you enjoy this podcast? If so, please leave a short review here. It keeps me going…

Subscribe to The Tim Ferriss Show on iTunes.
Non-iTunes RSS feed

Selected Links from the Episode

  • Explore Margaret Cho’s Writing:

I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight | I’m The One That I Want

Show Notes

  • What compels Margaret to perform stand-up comedy [3:30]
  • The early years of Margaret’s comedy career [4:50]
  • On the appeal of Joan Rivers and her immense gratitude [8:50]
  • Fearlessness and Margaret’s most fearful on-stage moments [11:30]
  • How to deal with hecklers [15:45]
  • Margaret’s inspirations [19:30]
  • Revealing intimate traits on stage and thoughts on female bisexuality [23:00]
  • The challenges of the isolated comedian lifestyle, and the potential for drug addiction [30:00]
  • Personality traits for those who gravitate towards stimulants vs. depressants [33:00]
  • The catalyzing moment when Margaret decided her prescription pill addiction needed to be fought [34:45]
  • Margaret Cho’s process for creating new material [40:30]
  • Why to hone an act (or product) internationally before bringing it to the USA – Note: Nike does this. [42:30]
  • “Successful” — who comes to mind? Does Margaret self-identify as successful? [48:00]
  • Clarifications on the Slow-Carb Diet and cheat day [50:30]
  • Hunger and human resilience [58:30]
  • Her death-row meal and why it’s changed since starting the SCD [1:10:30]
  • Margaret’s favorite curse word [1:11:45]
  • Stand-up pre-game rituals [1:13:45]
  • On Hollywood success and the types who aren’t tortured by it [1:16:10]
  • What attributes Dave Grohl exhibits, and why drummers tend to be positive people [1:17:30]

People Mentioned

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Rolf Potts on Travel Tactics, Creating Time Wealth, and Lateral Thinking

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rolf-potts-on-the-tim-ferriss-show1

“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” - Rolf Potts

“If in doubt, just walk until your day becomes interesting.” - Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding (hear the audio book sample here), one of my favorite books of all-time.  It was one of just two books (the other was Walden) that I carried with me around the world from 2004-2005.  Those adventures led directly to The 4-Hour Workweek.

World travel doesn’t have to be a wealthy person’s sport. In this often hilarious conversation, Rolf and I dig deep into travel tactics, creating time wealth, “managing success,” and much more.  It’s a fun romp through every imaginable topic, from business to poetry, and from Wall Street to psychedelics.

Enjoy!


This podcast is brought to you by 99Designs, the world’s largest marketplace of graphic designers. Did you know I used 99Designs to rapid prototype the cover for The 4-Hour Body? Here are some of the impressive results.

This episode is also brought to you by ExOfficio, which I’ve personally used since 2005 or so. They make ultra-lightweight, quick drying, antimicrobial clothing for men and women. Here’s my own ultra-light packing list (scroll down for video), which went viral.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What are the most valuable lessons (or tricks) you’ve learned through travel? Please share your story in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes.

Do you enjoy this podcast? If so, please leave a short review here. It keeps me going…

Subscribe to The Tim Ferriss Show on iTunes.
Non-iTunes RSS feed

Selected Links from the Episode

Part I

Part II

Connect with Rolf Potts:

Show Notes

Part I

  • Converting travel fantasies into realities and the time-wealth principle [2:30]
  • Deconstructing and defining success, money, and freedom [12:00]
  • The time-strapped billionaire paradox [14:10]
  • Resources to fight the fears associated with world travel [25:09]
  • How new collaborative consumption technologies affect the long-term travel experience [29:00]
  • JP Morgan’s trip to Egypt, and what we can learn about business on the road [40:56]
  • Vacations and their effect on creative output [42:55]
  • When to leave the optimize-for-efficiency mindset behind [44:32]
  • Can you replicate travel benefits with a “staycation”? [51:37]
  • Exploring appreciation vs. achievement [54:08]
  • Rolf Potts’ writing process + “Swoopers” and “Bashers” [59:54]

Part II

  • The breakthrough for Potts in his writing: structure learned from screenwriting tomes [1:00]
  • Vagabonding and the therapeutic use of psychedelics [7:00]
  • The art of getting lost, and the benefits of getting lost [8:05]
  • What it’s like to teach writing in Paris, and who is a good fit for the class [16:15]
  • Thoughts on a mid-career Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) [22:13]
  • “Success management” and her champions: Dave Chapelle and John Hughes? [35:26]
  • Rapid-fire questions: Grizzly Man, Con Air, the love of poetry, and more [41:45]

People Mentioned

Part I

Part II

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