Listening to John McPhee

March 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Brevity’s new managing editor Liz Stephens blogs on John McPhee and the recent/rare interview he granted to the LA Times:

Sitting here at my desk on a writer’s block day, staring out of my window at birds and trying to figure out what to say about birds, I’m struck doubly by John McPhee’s assertion that “you suspend the normal world to reproduce the normal world.” I think this, I think, and then think: John McPhee thinks this. (“You like coffee?” I’d surely wheedle if I met him. “Hey, I like coffee! You like sleeping? No kidding, I…”) It turns out, of course, that the seamless flow of information and the trustworthy tone in his own writing take the effort we all make as writers, unknotting sentence after ugly first-draft sentence.

In his new book of essays, Silk Parachute, John McPhee finally begins to show readers his “fault lines,” Susan Salter Reynolds calls these personal memories, in her review in the New York Times. At age 79, he has begun to open up. What a prize for all of us, in an age of egregious public self-exposure, to have waited so long to know more about any writer than he or she has already told us; especially one who has now guided us through fish spawning, geologic discovery, sports, and through these, often life in general.

Finally we get tools from the man himself. McPhee, Salter Reynolds tells readers, “writes three or four drafts of each piece, spending about two years on the first draft, four months on the second, one month on the third and one week on the fourth.” Also, as a researcher, he writes it all down as he goes. Also (and we love this conversation at Brevity), he believes there’s a “high priority on getting the facts straight. “ ‘People say the line is blurred,’” Salter Reynolds quotes him as saying. “But a fact is either checkable or it isn’t.”

For myself, I’m inspired. Some people, let’s be honest, I don’t care so much when they tell me about themselves. I hear a lot nowadays about people’s childhoods, and their troubles, and their opinions, without knowing immediately why I should value their particular selves over anyone else’s. They have to earn that, whether via rarity or distinct voice or sheer will shining through in their writing. Usually, I’d rather read about fish spawning and let the mystery of the writer simmer underneath the prose a bit. John McPhee, I already trust. I already look up to. He’s told me some things that were right. I’m listening.

— Liz Stephens

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