Saturday, June 26, 2010

McPhee's Writing Method

This is from Narrative essay on John McPhee's latest book.

James L. Howarth, in the introduction to The John McPhee Reader, which in 1982 excerpted McPhee’s first dozen books, described McPhee’s working method for literary journalism that allowed him to break a major piece into parts, to think in smaller components, and to develop a structure:
• He types up his field notes, sometimes adding new details or thoughts; his typescript, clasped in a three-ring binder, may run to 100 pages.
• He makes a photocopy of the typescript, shelves it for later use, and jots notes in the margins of his working copy about areas that need further research.
• He reads the binder and thinks about possible structures; he might foresee the ending, and at this point he sometimes writes the essay’s opening, as much as 2,000 words.
• He codes the binder with structural categories, usually cryptic words or acronyms; he then writes these topics on index cards, which he shuffles into various orders. He then tacks the cards to a huge bulletin board in his chosen order.
• He codes his duplicate set of notes and cuts them apart with scissors, sorting the thousands of scraps into file folders, one for each topical index card on his board. He puts the folders in a filing cabinet and, with a steel dart stuck beneath his first card on the board, begins to write. As the dart moves to a new card, he opens a new folder, sorting its contents until that segment within the structure also has a workable structure.
“Outlined in this fashion,” Howarth writes, “McPhee’s writing methods may seem excessively mechanical, almost programmatic in his sorting and retrieval of data bits. But the main purpose of this routine is at once practical and aesthetic: it runs a line of order through the chaos of his notes and files, leaving him free to write on a given parcel of work at a given time. The other sections cannot come crowding in to clutter his desk and mind; he is spared that confusion by the structure of his work, by an ordained plan that cannot come tumbling down.”

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