In "Frames of Reference," one of the chapters in John McPhee's "Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process," this longtime staff writer for the New Yorker visits his granddaughter's 12th-grade English class. He brings with him a list of approximately 60 items mentioned in an article he has just written. "I would like to try that list on you," McPhee tells the young people. "Raise your hand if you recognize these names and places: Woody Allen."
All 19 students are aware of Woody Allen, so he starts going down his list. Only five hands go up for Norman Rockwell, Truman Capote and Joan Baez. Laurence Olivier gets one. In 2014 none of these high school seniors can identify Samuel Johnson. Or Sophia Loren. Or Bob Woodward.
McPhee doesn't intend this to be shocking. He certainly knows the voting results if you were to ask other students about John McPhee.
No, what he means to emphasize is the brief shelf life of cultural references. Prose that overindulges in the hip can quickly grow incomprehensible or dated. Today's "woke" and Adele are yesterday's "keen" and Dinah Shore. So little abides and the present inexorably overwrites the past.
Which is why rediscovery remains an important function for critics, scholars and serious readers. Even if you've never heard of Bill Bradley, you can pick up "A Sense of Where You Are " and read with pleasure this profile of a young basketball player. That book, McPhee's first, appeared in 1965 and has since been succeeded by 31 others, the most admired being "Oranges," "The Pine Barrens," "Coming into the Country "— about Alaska — and the Pulitzer Prize-winning study of North American geology, "Annals of the Former World." Never as flashy as Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe, nor as lyrically moving as Joan Didion, McPhee has always relied on prose that is fact-rich, leisurely, requiring a certain readerly patience with scientific and geographical description, and nearly always enthralling. Years ago, when I taught literary journalism, I had my classes buy "The John McPhee Reader."
As it happens, McPhee himself teaches creative nonfiction at Princeton, and two of his former students — the New Yorker's editor David Remnick and The Post's Joel Achenbach — warmly praise their mentor on the jacket of "Draft No. 4." Apparently derived from that college course, this insider's guide to long-form journalism, though somewhat meandering, is a book that any writer, aspiring or accomplished, could profitably read, study and argue with.
However, its opening two chapters, in which McPhee presents his various systems for structuring articles, do require a bit of perseverance. There are graph-like illustrations, circles, arrows, number lines, maps and even an irrelevant excursus about an outmoded text editor called Kedit. The upshot of it all is simply: Take time to plan your piece so that it does what you want.
From here McPhee proceeds to offer more specific advice. For example, he warns against comic lead sentences, such as "Insomnia is the triumph of mind over mattress." If you are serious about the subject, he explains, "you might seem to be indicating at the outset that you don't have confidence in your material so you are trying to make up for it by waxing cute." Successful writing, above all, starts with knowing what to include and what to leave out. In his classes, McPhee regularly asks students to trim a dozen lines from Joseph Conrad or tighten up the already concise Gettysburg Address. His aim could be summed up by the classic tonsorial mantra: Cut it but don't change it.
In another chapter, McPhee addresses the uneasy relationship between editors and writers, illustrating his points with anecdotes from life at the New Yorker. Once he asked the then-editor, William Shawn, how he could justify devoting vast amounts of time and money to making sure the magazine's stories were accurate. After all, besides underwriting its contributors' research and travel, the New Yorker employed copy editors, fact-checkers and an in-house grammarian. Was all this labor-intensive attention to detail really worth it? Shawn only murmured, "It takes as long as it takes."
"As a writing teacher," McPhee adds, "I have repeated that statement to two generations of students. If they are writers, they will never forget it." Without disputing the importance of getting things right, may I nonetheless gently demur from this implied goal of artistic perfection? While McPhee proffers tested insights into efficient reporting and note-taking, on the deft use of quotations and indirect discourse, on both writer's block and the pleasure of revision, he's nonetheless living in a privileged world, where expenses scarcely seem to matter and he and the New Yorker can expend months, even years on a single project. Yet most of us in the writing trade face inexorable deadlines and weekly bills. We can't afford to carry on like perennial graduate students, endlessly researching, endlessly polishing. We simply do the best we can in the time available, then move on to the next assignment.
Enough of such carping. For over half a century, John McPhee — now 86 — has been writing profiles of scientists, eccentrics and specialists of every stripe. All are exceptional at what they do. So, too, is their discerning chronicler:
"Creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have."
Michael Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
By John McPhee
Farrar Straus Giroux. 192 pp. $25