Writing is a strange enterprise. At first, the whole process can be almost entirely random. And then, once some key decisions get made, it is not random at all.
Consider John McPhee, the renowned nonfiction writer for The New Yorker and professor at Princeton University.
At the beginning of Draft No. 4, his memoir-cum-writing manual, McPhee describes his random way of selecting topics. After years of writing straight profiles for Time and The New Yorker, McPhee decided to profile two people. “Then who?” he asked himself. “What two people?” He considered various pairs who had to work together to achieve their own aims–the actor and director, the architect and client, the dancer and choreographer, the pitcher and manager. Then, randomly, he watched a 1968 semifinal match of the U.S. Open. Something about the players–Arthur Ashe and Clark Grabner–intrigued him. So he pursued it. The result was Levels of the Game, which became the model for analytic sportswriting.
With a dual portrait in the bag, McPhee decided to create a portrait of four people. But how do you organize a fourplex portrait? McPhee decided to identify one main character and show how that character interacts with three others. The lead character, first among equals, would give the piece a unity; the three other characters would reveal a wider range of perspectives and personalities. McPhee pictured his scheme like this:
McPhee decided to write something about the emerging environmental movement. Before finding Characters A, B, and C, he had to find Character D. After casting around for an Aldo Leopold type, he discovered David Brower of the Sierra Club. Now, who could be Dominy’s antagonist? Soon enough he found Floyd Dominy, the U.S. commissioner of reclamation, who had clashed repeatedly with Brower. “I can’t talk to Brower because he’s so goddamned ridiculous,” Dominy told McPhee. So, McPhee said, would you be willing to get on a rubber raft going down the Colorado River with him? “Hell, yes!” Dominy said. With those two characters lined up, McPhee went in search of two more.
Once McPhee finished that piece, which became Encounters With the Archdruid, he continued his quest for more complex portrait structures. “So, at the risk of getting into an exponential pathology,” McPhee writes, “I started to think of a sequence of six profiles in which a seventh party would appear in a minor way in the first, appear in a greater way in the second,” and so on.
McPhee has lots of interests–the environment, sports, politics, technology, the labor process–but they followed his desire to master various structures of writing. He decided how to write before he decided what to write about. Which, of course, is completely backwards.
Or is it? As McPhee notes, “The Raven” originated not in Edgar Alan Poe’s fascination with a man’s suffering over lost love but, rather, Poe’s desire to use a one-word refrain with a long “o” sound. So the origin of the poem was the famous refrain: “Nevermore.” With that word in place, Poe had to figure out who would say “Nevermore,” over and over. For that role he selected a raven, speaking to the distraught man.
Alfred Hitchcock did something similar. When brainstorming a film, he identified places he wanted to shoot. So he decided to shoot a scene at the face of Mount Rushmore. After that location, he decided to use a vast farm as a scene. With those and other scenes in his lineup, he had to decide what would happen there. The result, eventually, was the film North By Northwest. Another time, he decided he wanted to shoot scenes at a London chapel and at the Royal Albert Hall. Those scenes eventually played leading roles, if you will, in The Man Who Knew Too Much. “Of course, this is quite the wrong thing to do,” Hitchcock said. Maybe, maybe not. But he did it and it worked.
Whatever the process, the writer starts with a blank slate. The possibilities are as broad as the writer’s imagination and ability to explore. But one he makes a fateful decision–once he picks this structure instead of that structure, this scene instead of that scene, this character instead of that character–the possibilities narrow. Every decision not only excludes certain possibilities, it also increases the likelihood of others.
The narrowing process
That’s when things get interesting. Once McPhee picked Floyd Dominy for his four-person portrait, he had to seek out the ideas, events, characters, and conflicts that would make it work. Every decision narrowed his scope. Every decision drove McPhee toward more and more specific topics. Before long he was on that Colorado River with his four main characters, discovering what their time together, on the river, revealed about their character and their causes.
Now we are in the heart of the writing process, which mostly happens before the author has written a single word–research. The author must go out and gather as much information as possible. Inevitably, he will gather far more than he can ever consider using–ten times more, at least. Out of all that information, the author will begin to understand his subject. He will begin to convey impressions about who, what, when, where, and why. Paraphrasing Cary Grant, McPhee tells his students that “a thousand details add up to one impression.”
The author makes countless decisions about what to consider and what to ignore. More-or-less random decisions (focusing on one character or two or four or six characters) give way to decisions about specific people, things, places, events, and ideas. The author is always asking himself: This or that? And: Then what? The materials start to fill notebooks, audio files, picture files. The process develops momentum. Faulkner once said:
It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.
Faulkner was working from his imagination. Nonfiction writers like McPhee draw from their piles of notes. Once they have enough material, they start, like Faulkner, to chase their characters and putting them into actual scenes, summaries, descriptions, and analyses.
Start strong, finish strong
The most important elements? The start (known in journalism as the “lead”) and the finish.
“The lead, like the title, should be a flashlight that shines down into the story,” McPhee says. “A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this. If it is not going to be so, don’t use the lead.”
The right lead hints at everything, directly or indirectly–not just substance, but style too. Reading the lead is like meeting your tour guide for the first time. She tells you about the trip ahead–what sites you’ll visit, how much information she will offer, what kinds of stories she’ll tell, and, in general, what kind of company she will provide along the way.
The finish might be even more important. It’s your destination. Ideally, it should respond to the question or issue that the lead raises. The finish should feel like the end of a trip. You’ve arrived and you now know much more that you knew at the beginning. Issues that once puzzled you now make sense. Characters who once seemed incomplete are now complete.
In a sense, the lead and the conclusion are always talking to each other as the story or essay proceeds. This dialogue helps you to make decisions for the middle pieces. You can’t talk about just anything and everything any more. You talk only about what it takes to get from the beginning to the end.
Here’s where the writer’s fun begins. After a lot of grinding–hard labor to gather the pieces and figure out how they might relate to each other–you can develop the ideas and characters and scenes with some depth and care. You can find the details that express “the people and the places and how the weather was,” to quote Hemingway. You can find the words that express the ideas just right–les mots juste.
As it happens, McPhee’s daughters have followed in his footsteps as creatives. Two are novelists, one is an art historian, and another is a photographer. When they get stuck, they sometimes seek advice from each other and their father. McPhee shares this piece of advice he once offered his daughter Jenny:
The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy, I just fling words as if they were I were flinging mud on the wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you’ve achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the eye and ear. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.
And when do you know you’re done? You just know. You run out of questions to ask. When you ask questions, you know the answer before your interviewee can respond. The scenes play vividly in your mind, in the right sequence, almost like a movie.
Nothing is random any more.
At that point, you’re probably already thinking about the next story.
Many years ago, I got the time wrong for a meeting at Boston University. To pass time, I wandered over to the campus bookstore and found Levels of the Game. In describing the U.S. Open match, McPhee offers a glimpse not just of tennis and sports and strategy, but of the two Americas. Arthur Ashe was a black who grew up in segregated Richmond; Clark Graebner was a privileged country club kid from suburban Milwaukee. Subtly, McPhee reveals some of the underlying truths of race and class that don’t fit the usual ideological and partisan debates.
I sat on the floor and read until, in a jolt, I realized I had to hustle to my meeting. As I lifted myself off the floor, I knew what I wanted to do for my next project. With just a moment of thought, I decided to give the McPhee treatment to Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, when the Arizona Diamondbacks rallied in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 to beat the three-time defending champion New York Yankees. The game had everything—the sport’s best players and personalities, the convergence of trends that were changing the game, and an emotional undercurrent owing to the 9/11 attacks that happened six weeks before.
While writing that book, The Last Nine Innings, I occasionally returned to McPhee’s work. I read his book on Bill Bradley and long New Yorker pieces on nuclear proliferation, oranges, and geology. I picked apart his work, looking for tricks of the trade that I could use myself. I did not want to be McPhee; only one person can do that. But he is a master of longform narrative, worthy of study and emulation. He is, I suspect, as immersed in both the substance and form of storytelling as anyone alive. I have long envied the hundreds of students who have learned his approach in his creative nonfiction classes at Princeton.
Now, with Draft No. 4, he has invited writers everywhere into his seminar room.