Sunday, June 20, 2010

Insights into Writing: John McPhee

John McPhee’s luminous prose has filled the pages of The New Yorker for the past forty years and has made its way into more than thirty books, earning him such accolades as an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Pulitzer Prize (for Annals of the Former World).

In the Spring, 2010 issue of The Paris Review, he shares a wealth of insights into writing with the interviewer, Peter Hessler, himself a staff writer for The New Yorker and whose book, Oracle Bones, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Here are two excerpts from the interview:
The fundamental thing is that writing teaches writing. And you always get this question from people, and they say some version of the idea that writing can’t be taught. And the thing is, yeah, you can’t throw a firecracker on the ground and up comes a writer. But you can teach writing in the same way that you can coach swimming. When I was a swimming instructor at Keewaydin, all the kids I taught could already swim. Every single one of them was a swimmer. But as they moved through the water they had different levels of efficiency. You can talk to them about breathing and their rhythm and their arms and legs.

A teacher of writing can do that––as long as the teacher always bears in mind that writers are all unique. It seems a pointless exercise if you’re trying to teach somebody to write the way you do. You just comment on what they’re doing, and I think there’s a net utility in it.
Also, this:
There is no path. If you go to dental school, you’re a dentist when you’re done. For the young writer, it’s like seeing islands in a river and there’s all this stuff you can get into––where do you go? It can be a mistake to get too great a job at first; that can turn around and stultify you. At the age of, say, twenty-one, you’re in a very good position to make mistakes. Twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four––each time the mistakes become a little more costly. You don’t want to be making these mistakes when you’re forty-five. But the thing is, in steering around all those islands, and finding currents to go around them, they’re all relevant.
For additional excerpts of The Paris Review interview with McPhee, visit:

If you'd like more information about McPhee and his work, visit his home page:

For more interviews with McPhee, take a look at:

And for more interviews with other writers in The Paris Review, visit:

P.S. - Wordswimmer will be stepping out of the water and drying off over the next few weeks. With any luck we'll begin swimming again next month. See you then!

1 comment:

Jack said...

McPhee has some good things to say here, Bruce. I probably still haven't cleared up enough of the mistakes in my strokes across the pool, and I'm a lot past forty-five already, but the daily (almost) laps are still exhilarating, nonetheless.