Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee
With roughly 30 published books and more than 100 pieces in The New Yorker over the course of a half century, John McPhee is widely regarded a master and a pioneer of the art of creative nonfiction. He has also taught writing at Princeton, his alma mater, for much of that time. Over the course of his career, McPhee has written several essays on his process – the nuts and bolts of writing, his work with publishers and editors, and his best tips on eliciting information from an interviewee. Now, in Draft No. 4, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux has collected eight of these essays to create a combination memoir and how-to that no writer will want to miss.
In his early years as a writer, both at Time magazine and at The New Yorker, McPhee wrote profiles of famous and not-so-famous individuals, and in this collection’s lead essay, “Progression,” he diagrams the reporting endeavor for such a piece as an X surrounded by a circle of O’s. The X is the subject of the profile, and the O’s are interviewees who can provide insight into the subject. After a decade of this work, McPhee hit upon the notion of a double profile structurally represented by two such diagrams merged together with possible connections drawn between interior O’s able to shed light on both subjects.
The resultant piece, Levels of the Game, profiled Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe, tennis players who had known one another for half their lives, though the circumstances in which they grew up were polar opposites. When it was published in 1969, Robert Lipsyte of The New York Times wrote that it “may be the high point of American sports journalism.”
But McPhee wasn’t satisfied. “If two made sense, why not four people in one complex piece of writing?” He wrote ABC/D on a sheet of paper and pinned it to a bulletin board.Without knowing the theme of such a piece or even who the subjects A, B, C and D were, he planted the seeds of a yet more structurally complex profile.
As McPhee himself admits, structure should arise from the material, not be imposed upon it, yet in ABC/D he had devised a structure in search of a narrative. The story became that of environmentalist David Brower (D) and his conflicts with a mineral engineer, a real estate developer and the commissioner of the United States Bureau of Reclamation (A, B and C). This piece was published as Encounters with the Archdruid in 1971 and is an enduring narrative of the environmental movement.
McPhee acquired a love of structure from his high school English teacher, Olive McKee, who weekly assigned three pieces of writing and required an accompanying structural outline. “It could be anything from Roman numerals I, II, III to a looping doodle with guiding arrows and stick figures. The idea was to build some form of blueprint before working it out in sentences and paragraphs.”
In an essay aptly entitled “Structure,” McPhee includes structural diagrams for several pieces, making clear that Ms. McKee’s lesson stuck and served him well throughout his career. Examples include his profile of art historian, Thomas P.F. Hoving, structured upon the convergence of two story arms:
Another is a 1973 essay, “Travels in Georgia,” which is structured not chronologically but episodically, beginning in the middle of the story, with a scene involving a snapping turtle, and flashing back to the tale’s beginning to unravel forward:
The title piece of Draft No. 4 is my favorite. Within it, McPhee approaches the topic of first drafts, their difficulty for writers and the necessity of their existence so that later drafts may follow. Even McPhee, a 50-year veteran of the craft, struggles with getting something on paper.
“Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft. With that, you have achieved some sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye.”
This he told his daughter Jenny when she was at Princeton High School and struggling to start a piece of writing. Both she and her sister Martha have, unsurprisingly, gone on to write novels.
At just under 200 pages, Draft No. 4 is a slim (dwarfed by Annals of the Former World, McPhee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book on geology, which I have yet to crack though it sits right here next to me) but essential collection on the writer’s craft. Each of these eight essays was first published in The New Yorker, and they all entertain while shedding light on practical aspects of McPhee’s reporting, writing and editing tips and experiences.