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Author reveals tumultuous relationship with writing

  • COURTESY FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX

    “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process,” by John McPhee.

“DRAFT NO. 4: ON THE WRITING PROCESS”

John McPhee

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25)

There are only two kinds of writers in the world, according to John McPhee: the overtly insecure and the covertly insecure.

His new book, “Draft No. 4,” a collection of essays on craft, is a sunny tribute to the gloomy side of the writing life: the insecurity, dread, shame, envy, magical thinking, pointless rituals, financial instability, self-hatred — the whole “masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine.” And then the queasy desire to do it all over again.

McPhee lies on a picnic bench in his backyard for two weeks “fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing.” He lies on the floor among half-written pages “in a catatonic swivet.” He swears off writing. He swears off writing and really means it. He takes “a five-day walk” in his living room.

And yet. “Draft No. 4” is McPhee’s 32nd book. For all this turmoil, he averages one every 18 months — each of them serious, substantial, extravagantly researched; on subjects so ordinary (oranges), recondite (aeronautical engineering), seemingly boring, actually boring or just plain unfathomable that no one had bothered — or dared — to take them on. “Annals of the Former World,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on geology, strived to do no less than tellthe biography of the earth.”

May we all be cursed with such insecurity.

His new book has the feel of a valedictory lap. Many of the essays were previously published in The New Yorker, where McPhee has been a staff writer since 1965. The writing advice has been culled from his legendary lectures at Princeton, where he has taught Eric Schlosser, Robert Wright and David Remnick (now his editor), among others.

It’s McPhee on McPhee: commentary on his greatest hits; a little back story; a little affectionate gossip, much of it about the genius and squeamishness of the longtime editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, “the iron mouse,” who blanched at profanity, mentions of sex and articles about any place cold.

It’s an intimate book — and intimacy is rare in McPhee’s work. Reviewers have typically complained of his aloofness (“stingy” is the word that comes up) with an almost spousal sense of affront.

For most of his career, McPhee has written reverently about athletes, canoe builders and craftsmen — methodical, somewhat solitary men (mostly) who work with their hands and take quiet pride in their work. In his meticulous approach to his own work, McPhee resembles his subjects.

He can lapse into occasional hokiness. (“A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere and sit down when it gets there.”) But generally his advice is in the service of making the text as sturdy, useful and beautiful as possible. “The lead — like the title — should be a flashlight that shines down into the story. A lead is a promise,” he writes. It should not be “flashy, meretricious, blaring. After a tremendous fanfare of verbal trumpets, a mouse comes out of a hole blinking.”

Former students, fellow writers and even a few colleagues get their knuckles rapped for relying on cheap tricks. And McPhee shares, with boyish delight, his blueprints for the structures of his pieces, including “Encounters With the Archdruid,” a profile of environmentalist David Brower and Brower’s three chief antagonists.

IN RECENT years the notion of writing about craft has come in for some drubbing.

“What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition or the search for meaning?” Elif Batuman wrote in “The Possessed,” her study of Russian literature. “All it had were its negative dictates: ‘Show, don’t tell’; ‘Murder your darlings’; ‘Omit needless words.’ As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits — of omitting needless words.”

These are, as it happens, a few of the very dictates in “Draft No. 4.” But reading McPhee makes you realize that perhaps writers wax about craft because it’s the easiest part of writing to talk about. It’s much harder to account for the flashes of inspiration, the slant of seeing, the appetite for the world — to know it down to its core — that keep you coming back to McPhee.

It’s not just the inventive engineering, it’s that he describes the Appalachians as corrugated like “a rippled potato chip” in “Annals of the Former World,” or a mountain so thickly garlanded with juniper that “the air was unadulterated gin.” You want to lick the pages.

It’s a bittersweet feeling to spend so much time with McPhee at a moment when journalistic outlets are slashing staffs and “pivoting to video.” Will this fastidious attention to language and to the natural world soon seem quaint?

In his book “The Survival of the Bark Canoe,” about making canoes by hand, he asked why bother with canoes in the first place. It’s “a rite of oneness with certain terrain,” he realized. “An act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.”

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