Writers on Writing – John McPhee


John McPhee, the great American factual writer (he doesn’t like the word nonfiction: “nonfiction — what the hell, that just says, this is nongrapefruit we’re having this morning. It doesn’t mean anything. You had nongrapefruit for breakfast; think how much you know about that breakfast”) on why writing is hard but not writing is impossible:

I was a very nervous writer about my own work, and am to this day. I never have any confidence when I start out on a story. I gain confidence after the first draft is written. But before the first draft is written, I’m almost as lacking in confidence now as I was back then…. I think it’s totally rational for a writer, no matter how much experience he has, to go right down in confidence to almost zero when you sit down to start something. Why not? Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you….
[Yet] Writing is a sustaining thing. I decided when I was young that I wanted to write, so that’s what I do. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t know what to do. Without it I’d probably croak.
-John McPhee

From a Paris Review interview .

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Excerpts On Writing – Hemingway’s Boat Response

Oscar Wilde said he always travelled with his diary because he liked having something sensational to read on the train. My diary is, alas, neither exactly a diary (unless Ryman spiralbounds count these days) nor sensational, but it does go everywhere with me and here are a few scribbled thoughts from my Galway-to-London journey last weekend, dashed off after reading Paul Hendrickson’s latest non-fiction epic Hemingway’s Boat.

12 March
Reading about writing is a dangerous preoccupation, dipping into the fantasy of another’s creative life. Feeling the need of a sense of mission, wanting a clear picture. A clean, well-lighted dream to pursue. A puzzle box so [the] only thing left to do is put together the pieces. Risky.

Read [Hemingway’s Boat] in one great 28 hour gulp (less nine hours sleep and several hours quiet conversation). Jumbled feelings: awe, fascination, curiosity, envy (despite everything) of shining hours on the sea and drinking rum, eating avocados right out of the shell. Fantasy powerful as a Siren call – tie yourself to the mast, my friend – would it be worth it? The high times, the urge to tear up. I’d like to have known more about the bi-polarism, medical stuff. The actual, genetic, biological fact of it, woven into the DNA, making everything dark that little bit less resistible.

The writing is a sustained, beautiful sleight-of-hand peppered with parenthetical rabbits popping out of hats. The delicate, ruthless details (asking the fading old man to disinter his dead wife’s wedding dress), the moments of private meditation. Slipping off to cast for trout the author flexes his own masculinity, as if to say: “I’m not just a gatherer, a teller of tales, I make my own stories too. I’ve tied a few on.”

The constant, tantalising, steady-voiced mingling of verifiable fact (letters, dates, police reports) with compassionate speculation. The sudden veer and shift (“don’t look here, look here“). The intensity of detail: lists of fishing supplies, fish species, concurrent events. Over and over the evocation of water: blue, purple, turquoise, brown, something to do with seaweed, iron content, depth, the sand. Washes through and over the narrative till you can almost feel it, get the cast-off ripple light caught in your eyes.

A book not so much about about a boat as about creation – the things we make deliberately and unwillingly.

The Secret Life of Language

Go, go, go to The Nervous Breakdown to read my profile of psychologist and author James Pennebaker, a lovely man bursting with clever ideas who was kind enough to share his time to talk about life, linguistics and his book The Secret Life of Pronouns.

Academics are easy to caricature. Sketch a figure in a rumpled suit jacket with messy hair and a pair of glasses clinging doggedly to the tip of his nose and you’ll win that round of Pictionary. Dr James Pennebaker, though, defies expectations. A renowned researcher, author, and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, he blends down-to-earth bonhomie with a taste for Lanesborough Hotel martinis, and hones his brilliant mind with long-distance running.

I contacted Dr Pennebaker after reading an excerpt from his latest book, The Secret Life of Pronouns. The product of fifteen years of research, The Secret Life of Pronouns argues that the way people use pronouns – the itty-bitty words like ‘you’, ‘I’ and ‘we’ that account for more than half of daily conversation – can predict things like emotional state (depressed people say “I” a lot), social status (powerful people use “I” less frequently), or truthfulness (liars tend to say “we”). No self-respecting word geek could fail to be intrigued.

Click here to continue reading.

Quote of the day: Dan Wieden

Just do the things you love. Do what turns you on, say what you wish somebody else would say, and show me something nobody else has, that’s of interest to you. I think sometimes part of the problem is this whole thing becomes so complex… it seems like a mountain range and it’s really just a bunch of idiots up there trying to figure out how to keep alive for the next day.
Dan Wieden of Wieden + Kennedy on getting ahead in advertising, or life.

Pity The Rich

One beautiful thing about a long commute is having time to read. This week’s early-morning train companion was Mrs. Astor Regrets. I randomly picked it off the shelf at Powell’s a couple of months ago knowing nothing about the Astors apart from the name. Now I do, I don’t envy them their millions. There doesn’t seem to be much joy in being that kind of rich, even with the sweetener of fabulous jewels and $25,000 worth of couture every season.

Engrossing, fast-paced, fiercely human story, though, and a delicious chance to peek into a bygone world of American aristocracy.