Friday, May 31, 2013

John McPhee on how not to write?

Many of you will have read John McPhee's recent pieces in the New Yorker about how he writes, and how he seems to be recommending that others write too. Recently a reader wrote in with what seems to me a very appropriate reaction to this, as follows:

John McPhee, in his essay about writing and rewriting, essentially asserts that the only real writers are those who are so paralyzed by their internal critic that they can barely put two words together during the first draft (“Draft No. 4,” April 29th). Others, such as Junot Díaz and Jay McInerney, have said the opposite: that accepting the imperfection of the first draft, learning to allow oneself to write without interference from the inner editor, is what frees a writer to work. Kurt Vonnegut said he was glad that he had untutored years as an undergraduate to fill up notebooks uncensored: “I was growing my soul!” He was grateful not to have “learned taste too early.” And Natalie Goldberg, in her book “Writing Down the Bones,” urges writers to “keep your hand moving.” No one-word-an-hour for her. “How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?” McPhee asks. A priori, unearned love helps something become good.
Jenae Marks
Berkeley, Calif.

As a writer, and as a writing teacher at NYU (Carter Journalism Institute), I agree with this objection to the McPhee method. The more some writers make writing out to be an esoteric art that only a small elite can perform, the fewer people will dare to do it. That might be good for business, but bad for literature.

I say this as someone who has long admired McPhee and learned a lot from him.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Office of Communications, Princeton University.

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