[Here’s an essay in the Princeton Alumni Weekly about John McPhee, who has been teaching at the university for nearly 40 years. I’ve had a lot of lucky breaks over the years, and getting in that class is definitely on the list. The regulars here may recall the story of McPhee reading a letter from the New Yorker grammarian that described my writing as epitomizing all that is wrong with the narcissistic younger generation. Nevertheless, he took a chance on me. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to write this essay.]
John McPhee ’53 has many moves as a writer, one of which he calls a “gossip ladder” — nothing more than a stack of quotations, each its own paragraph, unencumbered by attribution or context. You are eavesdropping in a crowd. You take these scraps of conversation and put them in a pile. Like this:
“A piece of writing needs to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there.”
“Taking things from one source is plagiarism; taking things from several sources is research.”
“A thousand details add up to one impression.”
“You cannot interview the dead.”
“Readers are not supposed to see structure. It should be as invisible as living bones. It shouldn’t be imposed; structure arises within the story.”
“Don’t start off with the most intense, scary part, or it will all be anticlimactic from there.”
“You can get away with things in fact that would be tacky in fiction — and stuck on TV at 3 o’clock in the morning. Sometimes the scene is carried by the binding force of fact.”
The speaker in every instance is John McPhee. I assembled this particular ladder from the class notes of Amanda Wood Kingsley ’84, an illustrator and writer who, like me, took McPhee’s nonfiction writing class, “The Literature of Fact,” in the spring of 1982. In February, McPhee will mark 40 years as a Princeton professor, which he has pulled off in the midst of an extraordinarily productive career as a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of more than two dozen books.
When the editor of this magazine asked me to write something about McPhee’s class, I knew it would be the easiest assignment ever, though a little nerve-wracking. It was, because most of McPhee’s former students have saved their class notes and marked-up papers (Marc Fisher ’80: “I’ve never lived anywhere without knowing where my notes from his class are”).
When I meet Rick Klein ’98 at a coffee shop down the block, we examine forensically Rick’s class papers and the McPhee marginalia, the admonitions and praise from a teacher who keeps his pencils sharp. McPhee never overlooked a typo, and when Rick (now the hotshot political director at ABC News) wrote “fowl” instead of “foul,” the professor’s pencil produced a devastating noose.
McPhee’s greatest passion was for structure, and he required that students explain, in a few sentences at the end of every assignment, how they structured the piece. (McPhee noted on a piece Rick wrote about his father: “This is a perfect structure — simple, like a small office building, as you suggest. The relationship of time to paragraphing is an example of what building a piece of writing is all about.”)
Rick reminds me that the class was pass/fail.
“You were competing not for a grade, but for his approval. You were so scared to turn in a piece of writing that John McPhee would realize was dirt. We were just trying to impress a legend,” he says.
Which is the nerve-wracking part, still. He is likely to read this article and will notice the infelicities, the stray words, the unnecessary punctuation, the galumphing syntax, the desperate metaphors, and the sentences that wander into the woods. “They’re paying you by the comma?” McPhee might write in the margin after reading the foregoing sentence. My student work tended toward the self-conscious, the cute and the undisciplined, and McPhee sometimes would simply write, “Sober up.”
He favors simplicity in general, and believes a metaphor needs room to breathe. “Don’t slather one verbal flourish on top of another lest you smother them all,” he’d tell his students. On one of Amanda’s papers, he numbered the images, metaphors and similes from one to 11, and then declared, “They all work well, to a greater or lesser degree. In 1,300 words, however, there may be too many of them — as in a fruitcake that is mostly fruit.”
When Amanda produced a verbose, mushy description of the “Oval With Points” sculpture on campus, McPhee drew brackets around one passage and wrote, “Pea soup.”
That one was a famously difficult assignment: You had to describe a piece of abstract art on campus. It was an invitation to overwriting. As McPhee put it, “Most writers do a wild skid, leave the road, and plunge into the dirty river.” Novice writers believe they will improve a piece of writing by adding things to it; mature writers know they will improve it by taking things out.
Another standard McPhee assignment came on Day One of the class: Pair up and interview each other, then write a profile. It was an early test of our nonfiction writing skills and a clever way for McPhee to get to know his students at the beginning of the semester.
McPhee’s dedication to his students was, and is, remarkable, given the other demands on his time. One never got the sense that he wished he could be off writing a magazine story for the New Yorker rather than annotating, and discussing face-to-face, a clumsy, ill-conceived, syntactically mangled piece of writing by a 20-year-old.
He met with each of his 16 students for half an hour every other week. Many of his students became professional writers, and he lined up their books on his office shelf, but McPhee never has suggested that the point of writing is to make money, or that the merit of your writing is determined by its market value. A great paragraph is a great paragraph wherever it resides, he’d say. It could be in your diary.
“I think he loves it when students run off and become field biologists in Africa or elementary school teachers,” Jenny Price ’85 tells me. She’s now a writer, artist and visiting Princeton professor.
McPhee taught us to revere language, to care about every word and to abjure the loose synonym. He told us that words have subtle and distinct meanings, textures, implications, intonations, flavors. (McPhee might say that “nuances” alone could have done the trick there.) Use a dictionary, he implored. He proselytized on behalf of the gigantic, unabridged Webster’s Second Edition, a tank of a dictionary that not only would give a definition, but also would explore the possible synonyms and describe how each is slightly different in meaning. If you treat these words interchangeably, it’s like taping together adjacent keys on a piano, he said.