You would think that by [the end of my second year as a New Yorker staff writer] I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. – John McPhee, Draft No. 4
As a professor teaching creative writing to undergraduates, I’m asked dozens of questions about writing on a weekly basis because my students distrust struggle and mistakenly sense that they’re somehow doing it wrong. I try my best to respond with the few insights about the craft of writing that I’ve managed to cobble together over the years, making it clear that I’ve got the same writerly difficulties. Sometimes what I answer suffices, but more often, the student frowns, sighs, and asks what they really want to know: How the hell does writing work? I always respond with the only answer I know: However the hell you can get it to work.
Writing can sometimes seem to involve two contradictory yet simultaneous struggles: first, to continue to move forward as a writer, and second, to accept that periods of self-doubt and fallowness are part of the work. While there is some comfort in realizing that knocking around the attic of one’s own brain, hoping to trip over a story, is an essential part of being a writer, camaraderie in despair doesn’t feel like enough. What my students really want is something to do, some action to take that will move them closer to actually writing.
Luckily for my students and me, John McPhee’s recent book-cum-master-class, Draft No. 4, is full of helpful suggestions. Its first kindness is to show us that even McPhee—revered longtime staff writer for the New Yorker, professor of journalism at Princeton, and author of more than thirty books—struggles. It’s deeply comforting to learn that a nonfiction writer as pioneering and important as McPhee tortures himself with the same questions as my first-year writing students have. He describes himself lying on a picnic table in his backyard for “nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic” because he doesn’t know how to start an essay. His research is done, and notes and recordings are piled up on his desk, but he doesn’t know where to begin. What a helpful gift to allow us to see him stuck!
The other great kindness of the book is that McPhee does not merely catalogue his writer’s block; he demonstrates how he gets out of it, making use of techniques that are blessedly simple in concept (although, as McPhee’s use shows, they can be as complex as a writer wants). He relies on techniques that vary from the digital to the utilitarian, many of which I found intriguing enough to apply them to my book project, about Broadway musicals and how they’ve shaped my life. I’m not fighting writer’s block, exactly, but the depth of material available to me, both in my recollections and in my research, can feel as stupefying as an empty page. Where to begin?
First, McPhee counsels, the proper mindset must be undertaken. While he seems as tortured as any of us by the dreadful process of beginning an essay or book, he seems to lack (or at least has successfully suppressed) the self-lambasting instinct too many of us indulge. Being stuck is hard, he acknowledges, but it’s not wrong, exactly. It’s a stage, and stages are moved through, with effort.
To what end should we put our mental effort? Although it must be noted that at no point in the book does McPhee dictate, he does suggest that structure is where the work of crafting nonfiction is most difficult; on the other hand, he makes a strong case that settling on a workable structure is ultimately tremendously freeing. He begins the book with an account of a complicated structure he decided to put together before he had a topic in mind—“That is no way to start a writing project, let me tell you,” he notes dryly—and then demonstrates a number of different structures he’s employed in his writing, typically after research: for example, he explains how he arrived at the structure of his profile of Thomas Hoving, then-director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was eventually titled “A Roomful of Hovings” and published in the New Yorker in 1967. The research McPhee had done gradually revealed that Hoving’s story was best told as a series of thematic sections that skipped around in time, rather than follow a more typical “He was born in …” structure. McPhee notes that this structure leaves room for the readers to work some of the meaning out for themselves.
The Hoving profile’s structure is diagrammed in the book, a kind of visual explanation McPhee helpfully provides for several of his works. And yet, he notes that he’s constantly looking for “a structure that makes sense and is not just clever.” The structure, he asserts, is for the writer, and readers should not especially notice it. But he’s also not in favor of writing that makes the easiest choice, noting himself to be particularly unmoved by the siren call of chronological or other hackneyed structures: “Has any other writer ever not done that?” he asks. As I had been considering a chronological structure for my book, I was relieved to read that McPhee doesn’t dismiss any structure unilaterally: if a typical structure passes the other tests—if it makes sense, isn’t clever, and works for the writing—then it’s worth considering. I decided that keeping a chronological structure made the most sense, but that the book had to be more than a straight-line march through my life.
At first, all of the emphasis on structure over topic confused me. Then I realized that topic is not unimportant to McPhee; it’s just that structure seems to be as important. And actually, McPhee suggests, there is an intriguing tension between subject and structure, between the story and the way the story is told. “The narrative,” he writes, “wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected.”
On that note, I was somewhat surprised by McPhee’s observation that in 90 percent of his writing, he’s explored topics that were of interest to him before college, a statistic I suspect would leave me writing much more pervasively about R.E.M. and U2 than I currently do. But then I realized that my interest in musicals absolutely proves his point, as I fell in love with them when I was a child. I began to see what McPhee means: we write about what we’re drawn to, and while our interests may expand somewhat over our lifetimes, they change less than we might expect because we change less than we might expect.
I realized I had to find spaces in my book that stepped outside the chronology of my life, places that allowed for deeper explorations of certain topics, including a close look at the title number from the movie Singin’ in the Rain, a performance by Gene Kelly that haunts me. With McPhee’s advice in mind, I began to think about the way an evening at the theater unfolds, from the settling in at the top of the show to the comparison of notes at intermission to the 11 o’clock number, when a musical hits its high point in energy and excitement. Sections I had been thinking of as digressions weren’t digressions at all, I realized, but could work like songs in a show, allowing insight into the characters’ thoughts and dreams, and I could intersperse them in the chronology of the book the way songs are placed in the plot of a show.
With a tentative structure and a definite topic, then, I had a plan and started researching. I knew I wanted to focus on the musical Godspell in the opening chapter, as it was my first musical, so I started there. Researching all of musical theatre is hard; researching one show less so.
Advice on how to research is where McPhee is particularly inspiring. He’s eighty-seven now, and his writing technique is characterized as as old school as you can get if you don’t employ a medieval scribe. This reputation is unfair, as one of the great revelations of the book is that McPhee has long used the computer program KEDIT, adapted by a friend to suit his exact needs, to help him draft. But the drudgery of his system, before the arrival of personal computers somewhat streamlined it, is memorable: he’d type up all of his notes, then code each by where it should appear in his structure, then photocopy the typed notes, then cut those photocopies into slivers, and finally, he writes, “If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders.” From there, he’d write up each section by spilling out the slivers and reorganizing them before he typed.
I should pause here and mention that this description thrills me, although it seems—and is!—laborious. I knit and sew and cook and garden and, in general, love using my hands to make things. Writing, a thing I do almost entirely in the digital realm these days, from concept to publication, can feel almost ethereal at times. I often find myself lost in a project if I’ve had to step away, frustrated that I can’t simply flip to the page where I was working or take up the notecards I had been using. Strange as it may sound considering the hours I spend typing, I long to use my hands as a writer.
Why it’s never before occurred to me to embrace the physicality of writing a book is a very good question, but for now, I’ll simply express my relief that McPhee’s technique has allowed me to do so. For a solid two weeks, I read books connected to my topic and took down notes on cards, coding them with the source and other helpful information. At the end of those two weeks, I spent several hours sorting the cards into stacks, then the stacks into a rough outline, and then, as I imagined McPhee beaming with approval, I put away all but one of those stacks. Sitting at my laptop, I began to write the story of how Godspell came to be and how I first saw it. As I remembered how it felt to hear a musical for the first time, I thought of McPhee’s advice about a lede: it “should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.”
Flashlight batteries dim and die, of course, and though I’m trucking along on my book, it’s highly possible that I’ll need to go back and rework the lede or the structure or both. But I do feel free of the worries with which I began the project: I’m neither swamped with too many ideas nor starving for one. I feel empowered to focus on what interests me in each chapter and to weave the factual information I want to include into my memoir. I can thank John McPhee for all of that. I like his combination of intellectual rigor and physical craft, which makes me feel that all of me can contribute to the creation of this book. Will the end product be as concise and beautiful as one of McPhee’s works? Probably not. But standing on the shoulders of giants still provides quite a lovely view.