Sunday, January 13, 2013

John McPhee's discussion of "structure" in his writing raises all sorts of fascinating questions about the way writers write and readers read


by Ken

Here's a case where online non-access makes it awfully difficult for me to write about a piece I'd really like to -- in this case a new installment in the series of pieces The New Yorker's John McPhee has been devoting to reflections on his own history as a writer. In the January 14 issue he offers a piece called "Structure" (see below for a link of sorts), which has two different subtitles. On the magazine's contents page, it's "Where do you start?" On the actual article, and int he online presentation, it's "Beyond the picnic-table crisis," which refers to the anecdotal episode with which McPhee begins the piece. For the reader, "Where do you start?" gives a better idea of the insight into his work process which the author is trying to share.

Two things at the outset:

• Unfortunately, as noted, offers only one of its "abstracts" for free to nonsubscribers (who always have free access to the magazine's wonderful online archive). It's certainly worth reading, but naturally it merely hints at the kinds of discussions that the piece entails.

• And it happens that I'm not much of a McPhee fan. Let me add quickly that I have a lot of respect for his career accomplishments. How could anyone not? Those accomplishments extend now to 28 nonfiction books and goodness only knows how many articles. (The two are kind of inseparable, since most of not all of those books originated as New Yorker articles that proved expandable to book length. Even the collection of essay is, I suspect, a collection of articles that didn't get so expanded.) McPhee is always serious in his choice of subjects, and certainly can't be accused of skimping in his field work. It's hard not to have one's mind boggled by accounts of the quantity of research and interviewing he did for each of those articles.

I've read a lot of those articles and a few of the books, and I can't say it better than to venture that, beyond a possible personality mismatch (always a consideration in a reader's bonding, or nonbinding, with a writer, I think), it may be that the questions he pursues about the way the world works don't line up well with my set of questions. Sometimes I think of it in metaphorical terms: that he's just not the traveler I would choose to take me to places of interest that I'm unable or unwilling to visit for myself -- in other words, the exact consideration that, in the field of literal travel, makes Michael Palin such an excellent surrogate traveler for me. I bring up this formulation to segue into the case of Ian Frazier, another New Yorker nonfiction writer with whom I've felt fundamentally out of sympathy but who nevertheless has proved an excellent literal travel guide -- I loved his extended account of his journey across Siberia.

Still, McPhee's stature as a writer for me lends automatic interest to these reflections he has offered about his "writing life," as the subject head over the title of the new piece proclaims it. And there's all sorts of fascination in the kinds of questions that come up as he shares with us the ways he developed for himself of approaching the challenge of producing a piece of writing.


Perhaps the first fascination is the discovery, not just of his basic strategy (which indeed places a high premium on "structure"), but of the fact that that strategy, once he developed it, has remained his pretty much unvarying way of transforming that mass of research material into a piece of writing. He has been vastly aided by technological advances, he explains, but even there he has had the persistence and good fortune to be able to have his computer tools shaped to his particular working method rather than tailoring that method to the way computers and computer tools generally work.

As to that method, I'm simplifying here, but not too much, I think. For decades now, once he has completed all that voluminous research, his first step is typing up all his notes, from all the notebooks in which they were originally made, and all the interviews, from recorded microcassettes. He did this back when his typing tool was an Underwood 5, "which had once been a state-of-the-art office typewriter but by 1970 had been outclassed by the I.B.M. Selectric," and for transcribing the cassettes he used a Sanyo TRC5200 Micro-Scriber, "which was activated with foot pedals, like a sewing machine or a pump organ."

"The note typing," McPhee says, "could take many weeks, but it collected everything in one legible place, and it ran all the raw material in some concentration through the mind." Ah, interesting! Now, since his original method involved an eventual printout of all the notes and then cutting them to sort into thematic sections, a great deal of retyping was eventually required, and this has presumably been largely eliminated in the computerization of his method -- for which, he stresses, what he used and uses is not a word processor but a text editor -- specifically, an elaborately customized version of Kedit.

What he has always done with that mass of typed material is to organize it under subject headings that he fits into an outline, as he was taught by a high school English teacher. Not a theoretical outline, mind you, but an actual written-out one. And on the basic of subjects included in that outline, he begins to organize the masses of material. Naturally, both the notebook jottings and the interview tapes contain material that goes into a wide range of the subject categories, and in the original computer adaptation his computer genius, Howard Preston, devised ways for him to code the destination of each fragment, a process that was originally accomplished by taking the entire bulk of typed materials and, after making a photocopy, literally cutting it into subject fragments, which were then arranged into the subject categories, each of which occupied a file folder. (Obvious though it may seem, I thought it was awfully smart to being working from a copy of the massive typescript, which thus remained intact for whatever future needs it might serve.)

None of this, it should be stressed, "told" him how to arrange either the subjects or the resource fragments.
The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning froma grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what's there is what you deal with, and all you deal with. . . .To some extent, the structure of a composition dictates itself, and to some extent it does not.
But they produced an arrangement of the materials from which he could begin to make the connections that made it possible (a) to imagine the ultimate structure of the written piece and then (b) to write it.


I know I'm making this sound mechanical, which is why you need to read McPhee's actual piece. Oh, he worries too that it will sound like a mechanical process, rather than a process that makes it possible for his mind to work on the material and, working in that crazy way the mind works, figuring out how to make that material tell the particular story he wants to tell. Throughout the piece he provides fascinating examples of the way particular pieces of his have literally, taken shape. Here he ccouches what I take to be for him the central issue of his thinking about nonfiction writing.
Almost always there is considerable tension between chornology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins. The narrative 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. They want to draw themselves together in a single body, in the way that salt does underground. But chronology usually dominates.
I think you can tell already that what McPhee always wanted to do was find ways of making it possible to structure his pieces around theme rather than chronology, and indeed the rest of the piece documents that process, again in the form of tracing the genesis of specific pieces. One obvious possiblity, which he has indeed used, is to begin and end a piece with chronology, but between those end points to structure the material thematically.

It takes enormous ingenuity and resourcefulness to structure a nonfiction piece thematically. It requires you to make sure that your entire story is told, and also that the reader understands how those thematically oriented article subsections fit together. Where those bits and pieces of paper, which seem to have evolved into 3-by-5 cards, came into play was in allowing McPhee to begin to imagine how the many scraps that didn't fit into obvious single subject categories might be linked to scraps that were clearly structure-bound. In that process of imagining, the sudden juxtaposition of a single pair of cards might provide the key to the entire story path of the piece. Again, when you read this in the context of the actual pieces' evolution, it becomes not mechanical but rather exciting.

Another point that intrigues me: Since at an early stage McPhee does settle on a fairly detailed outline of the piece as it will eventually be written, it's possible for him at that still-fairly-early stage in the writing process to write the end. Which means that when he sits down to begin the actual writing process, he knows exactly where the piece of writing is going to wind up. Hmmm!

I apologize for making the piece itself sound less intereting than it actually is. The fascination comes in reading all of this the way the author has written it -- presumably according to the exact process he describes (though I didn't make any attempt to break it down into the kinds of components we've read about; ideally the reader isn't going to be aware of them) -- showing by example how this method enabled his particular imaginative process to structure his mass of raw material into a feat of story-telling that reflects entirely the way he wants to tell each story. Along the way he is also considering many aspects of the way we look at and inquire about the world around us, and the way readers follow the paths chosen for them by writers.

Now if I had written this according to McPhee's method, I would already know how it's going to end. Unfortunately I don't.



At 11:32 AM, Blogger LanceThruster said...

I have been assigned by work a time management turorial on In Ch. 2, it talks about the "myth of multi-tasking" which is funny because they are having me squeeze viewing the tutorial in between my regular workday functions.


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