Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Essence of the Process

If you read only one book about the writing process this year, I hope you'll consider John McPhee's Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.

It contains eight essays on the writing process that were previously published in The New Yorker, the magazine where McPhee's work has appeared since 1965, and where you may have read some, or all, of these pieces.

If you have read any of these essays before, I recommend reading them again, since I find McPhee's work so rich that it can easily sustain multiple readings, each time offering up some new jewel that the reader may have missed or overlooked. And if you haven't yet read any of them, you are in for a treat.

You'll discover a man's love of the craft of writing, and a devotion to the process of putting words on paper reminiscent of a religious scribe, a man passionate about language and its usage and the delight that it provides for reveling in life's joys and mysteries.

McPhee believes wholeheartedly in revision as the core of the process. "The difference between a common writer and an improviser on a stage (or any performing artist) is that writing can be revised. Actually, the essence of the process is revision. The adulating portrait of the perfect writer who never blots a line comes Express Mail from fairyland."

If you take away just one nugget of truth from this book, let it be this one: The essence of the process is revision.

One of the things that I love about McPhee's approach to writing, and his willingness to teach writing to others (he's taught students at Princeton University, his alma mater, for years), is his understanding that each writer is cut from different cloth and approaches the problem of getting words on paper differently.

He gives us as examples the different ways his two daughters deal with the process.

"Jenny grew up to write novels, and at this point has published three. She keeps everything close-hauled, says nothing and reveals nothing as she goes along."

But keeping things close-hauled isn't the way his younger daughter Martha goes about the process.

"Her sister Martha, two years younger, has written four novels. Martha calls me up nine times a day to tell me that writing is impossible, that she's not cut out to do it, that she'll never finish what she is working on, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth and so on."

Two writers, two different ways of approaching the process.

Actually, three writers. There's McPhee himself who shares his own approach.

"It is toward the end of the second draft, if I'm lucky," writes McPhee, "when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away. The feeling is more than welcome, but it is hardly euphoria. It's just a new lease on life, a sense that I'm going to survive until the middle of next month."

There's a wealth of information in Draft No. 4 that will provide sustenance for you as a writer for weeks, if not months and years, whether you write fiction or, like McPhee, nonfiction.

And if you love reading The New Yorker, you'll love learning a bit of what goes on behind its cover and pages since McPhee generously shares stories about his working relationships with editors at the magazine who have nurtured and guided him along the way.

If you're curious about the kind of advice McPhee offers, here's a link to his essay, "Draft No. 4," as it appeared in 2013 in The New Yorker: 

And here's a link to the book, if you want to take a look:

And if you're interested in The New York Times' review of the book, click this link

No comments:

Post a Comment