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.
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 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.
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