Issue #8, 1997

What's the Story #8

Anatomy of "An Album Quilt"

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #8

This issue was inspired by the first annual Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers' Conference sponsored by Creative Nonfiction and Goucher College in Baltimore, Md. As Creative Nonfiction is the only literary magazine to publish nonfiction exclusively, so, too, was this event the only conference to feature workshops, readings, seminars and panels about nonfiction, only.

For six days last August, writers from as far away as Alaska studied and dialogued with some of the most energetic and accomplished nonfiction writers, including Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses), Darcy Frey (The Last Shot), Washington Post columnist Jeanne Marie Laskas and Paul West (My Mother's Music). There were editors and literary agents, as well.

There was also John McPhee.

I say this in a single line because McPhee's work and his ongoing impact on the creative nonfiction community deserve singular attention. They symbolize exactly what creative nonfiction represents the classic 5 Rs I have often discussed, including reportage, reflection, research, real life and high-quality prose ('riting). McPhee's essays in The New Yorker or his two dozen books (Coming Into the Country, Looking for a Ship, etc.) are accurate and informational, yet enriched with the author's personal experiences and observations. Indeed, in most of McPhee's work, a reader is captivated by substance rather than persona; we feel McPhee's strong presence, but he does not call attention to himself unless absolutely necessary. In his 60,000-word book, The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, he uses the word 'I' (in reference to himself) twice. McPhee's work is distinguished by his ability to see the world through the points of view of other people and communicate them intricately and intimately.

The fact that McPhee participated in the conference at Goucher was significant; he is known to be somewhat reticent. Private and driven, McPhee will devote months or years researching books and essays, traveling the world. And when he is not in Switzerland, Russia, Fairbanks or on the high seas with the merchant marine, he situates himself for 10-hour days, six days a week in an office in Princeton, New Jersey, his hometown, writing. One term a year, he emerges from hibernation to teach a special class at Princeton for students interested in The Literature of Fact.' Some of his more accomplished former students include Richard Preston (The Hot Zone) and Sheryl WuDunn and David Remnick, both winners of the Pulitzer Prize.

McPhee's preference that he remain a basically private person includes the dust jackets for his books'--sans traditional author's photo--and appearances on camera. One significant exception is a 22-minute video The New Yorker produced for promotional purposes, in which some of its most prestigious writers (Ann Beattie, Mark Singer, Jamaica Kincaid) discussed the joys and challenges of writing for 'the best magazine that ever was.' The video is a delight. In one sequence, Roger Angell recalls the moment he discovered an unsolicited story by Garrison Keillor and charged out of his office and down the hallway, waving the manuscript triumphantly. But the highlight is McPhee, a bearded grisly-looking character with a gravelly voice and a self-effacing manner, closeted in a drab, low-ceilinged room, like a mole. McPhee admits the typical writer's dilemma: procrastination. Just because he is in his office day after day, 'certainly doesn't mean I am working ... I just walk around, make a cup of coffee or tea, look out the window, inventing ways to avoid writing ... until 4 or 5 p.m. comes along, and it is really getting to be late, and then I'll get going. If I have a good day I might actually be writing four hours, tops.'

I had never met McPhee, and I was surprised to discover how outgoing and articulate he was, compared to what I had often heard about his elusiveness. Then came Goucher, at which McPhee presented a truly magnificent reading, partially culled from his book, 'Rising From the Plains' (1986), which included numerous unpublished excerpts from the journals of Ethel Waxham, who came to Wyoming at the turn of the century to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. McPhee's wife, Yolanda Whitman, joined him in the presentation, reading all of Waxham's journal entries and quotations. The following day, McPhee arrived on campus in the early afternoon and participated in a public dialogue about his methods of research, interviewing, etc.--an event that went on, basically nonstop, for more than five hours.

According to McPhee, 'Writing begets writing. You feel yourself growing as the result of the writing you do.' Normally, he will write four drafts of essays, and he reads everything he writes aloud before the final draft. McPhee revealed that his objective at the beginning of each essay or book--his first official writing act--is 'to find a good way into the piece, a lead,' he said, 'that works; a lead that isn't cheap; a lead that shines down into the subject and illuminates it. Almost always, I know the last line of the piece before I know anything else.' Interestingly, McPhee admitted that even in his advanced writing career, he starts the first draft of an essay or book with absolutely 'no confidence.'

McPhee's work has inspired my own nine nonfiction books. His adventures and discoveries in 'The Pine Barrens' were especially influential early in my career, and, later on, 'Heirs of General Practice,' helped ease me into the world of medicine. In the course of our conversations at Goucher, he told me about a past and future project of his, a montage he called 'An Album Quilt.'

A few years ago, he began putting together his writing that had never been published in book form--or published at all. This included articles from his earliest days at Time and a number of unsigned pieces written for the 'Talk of the Town' section of The New Yorker. It also included random, unpublished notes, about 250,000 words in all, which McPhee refined into about 75,000. His aim, he explained, was not merely to reproduce and reprint, 'but to present a montage of patches and fragments of past work that I have picked out and cut and trimmed (and edited and touched-up in the minor ways that I would edit and touch-up the final draft of any new piece of writing) and sewn together as if it were an album quilt.' Developed in Baltimore in the 1840s, album quilts were custom-made for individuals, and often commemorated technological innovations but also dealt with personal histories.

'The items in the montage are not adorned with titles,' McPhee explained, 'but are separated only by very small line drawings of individual quilt patches. In the paragraph of general introduction, however, mention will be made of a combination of notes, bibliography and table of contents that will be found at the end of the book. It will include topics, notes, page numbers and anything else I feel I ought to say about the nature and origin of each item. A browsing reader can look there and pick out Richard Burton or Woody Allen or Barbra Streisand or Oscar Robertson and see the number of the page on which the relevant item begins. Sources will appear there, with dates.' McPhee explained that 'An Album Quilt,' although considerably altered and rearranged, was still a draft; he and his longtime friend and publisher Roger Straus (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) had discussed publication sometime in the future, a few years hence. Meanwhile, he asked, would I care to read it?

Some months went by until we actually settled back into our respective offices and McPhee was able to locate a copy of 'An Album Quilt' and send it off. For the next week, I set aside an hour a day, tucked 'Quilt' under my arm, and walked up the street to my favorite coffee shop to read. The experience was fulfilling--on a number of levels. In reading 'An Album Quilt,' I discovered some old, unsigned favorites I hadn't seen for many years, such as the 'Talk of the Town' piece about the poor, absentminded professor (McPhee) who locks his keys in his car in downtown Manhattan near the Fulton Fishmarket. There are profiles of Mort Sahl, Joan Baez, Jackie Gleason, the latter two beginning with classic descriptions (identities withheld) which capture the essence of the subjects with bell-ringing clarity, along with Marion Davies, Richard Rodgers, Cary Grant. Aside from the notion that this was pure, terrific, original McPhee, which is the standard of excellence in the creative nonfiction/literary journalism field today, the real joy in reading 'An Album Quilt' was the fact that each turn of the page offered another unpredictable, delightful surprise.

Some of the jewels of 'An Album Quilt' are contained in the more personal entries, mostly unpublished, which capture the warm and intimate qualities that I discovered when I first met McPhee, face to face, at Goucher. In fact, as I read through 'An Album Quilt' (twice) at my coffee shop, I earmarked a half-dozen of these pieces as 'special' because they illuminated a heretofore veiled, personal side of McPhee. I approached McPhee about publishing these pieces which, I am happy to say, appear in this issue.

As you will see, McPhee writes of his home state, New Jersey, and the six Princetons he perceives; we meet his children and son-in-law, accomplished and worldly characters like their father; we learn more about the Ethel Waxham journal; and we meet his good friends and colleagues, William Shawn and Roger Straus, who inspired and supported him. I've lifted these jewels from 75,000 words of delightfully disordered spontaneity to be the centerpiece of Creative Nonfiction's eighth issue--our largest ever, 12 essays in all. McPhee's New Yorker colleague, Alec Wilkinson, is also included in this issue, as well as essayist Phillip Lopate, poets Donald Morrill and Kathryn Rhett, whose first nonfiction books will soon be published by Duquesne University Press' Emerging Writers in Creative Nonfiction book series, and novelist Ellen Gilchrist, who notes in the bio to her essay that she is currently, among other projects, 're-reading the works of John McPhee.'

Meanwhile, the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers' Conference which McPhee helped launch last year has been scheduled for August 12-16, 1997, in Baltimore, featuring readings, workshops and discussions with a number of other prestigious nonfiction writers, including Tracy Kidder, Tobias Wolff, Gay Talese, Lauren Slater, Darcy Frey, Jeanne Marie Laskas, Susan Orlean and me. Hope to see you there. For information, call 1-800-697-4646.

Author Bio

Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more

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