Lazarus of the Picnic Table: On John McPhee’s ‘Draft No. 4’

October 26, 2017 | 5 min read


The brute facts of John McPhee’s career connote a serene productivity: for more than half a century a fixture in The New Yorker; 30-plus books—many expanded from New Yorker articles, all still in-print—to his name; a Pulitzer in 1999 for an omnibus of his work on geology; and an appointment since 1975 at Princeton, where he’s instructed generations of students in the craft of nonfiction, including current New Yorker editor David Remnick.

Then there’s his composure on the page: a finely-milled crystalline prose that never announces itself yet pins its subjects with felicitous precision; the apotheosis of the New Yorker’s signature patrician style. And an expression of its sensibility: urbane intelligence at large in the world. Thus, McPhee’s range: riverboats, Alaska, oranges… The list of his subjects is long. Expansive, yes, but he’s also the consummate miniaturist, unhurriedly unwinding his monographs across tens of thousands of words and sometimes multiple issues. Such are the hallmarks of the McPhee canon; people who wouldn’t dream of picking up a book about say, long-haul trucking, will reach for McPhee’s trans-continental travelogue from the cab of a semi. At 86, he’s his own franchise, the McPhee shelf at your local bookseller immediately recognizable for its serried ranks of spines in Tom Wolfe ivory. Heft any of these tomes in your hands and you’ll find them as stolidly wrought as the writing they contain—robustly bound with sturdy paper stock in seeming anticipation of their consumption in some contemplative sylvan setting or other.

It comes as a surprise, then to encounter this doyen of the form terror-stricken and supine on a picnic table early on in Draft No. 4: John McPhee On the Writing Process. All but the most facile writers of narrative nonfiction will identify with the spiraling panic stealing over McPhee in 1966 at the prospect of distilling an amorphous wedge of painstakingly acquired field notes and transcripts into several thousand sentences of crisp, on-point copy.

It’s shades of Tom Wolfe in 1962 birthing the new journalism in a single paroxysmal night suspended over the abyss of a blown deadline. But McPhee is not so brash a writer, his catharsis slower to pay out.

For nearly two weeks, he remains blocked and recumbent. He recalls a similar fugue state in 1960 on staff at Time: at a loss for how to approach a profile of comedian Mort Sahl, he marshaled his notes to block out a story—impetus enough to escape his “catatonic swivet.” Six years on, the dense material he’s amassed for a piece on New Jersey’s Pine Barrens poses a higher degree of difficulty, but gradually it resolves itself in his mind into a semblance of cohesion. Through the salvific touchstone of structure, he pries himself up from his prostration and bends to his task.

A preoccupation forged in the crucible of crisis, structure is paramount to McPhee’s craft; a liberating constraint, the mold into which he pours his words. “It painted me into a corner,” he recounts. “Yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.”

Initially, he practices a variant of the “cut-up method,” dismembering his notes with a pair of scissors then reassembling them on a makeshift drafting table in a sequence that plots a path through the material, imposes order on it, manages the tension between chronology and theme. With the advent of personal computers in the 1980s, he automates the process through a bespoke program that instantly configures his notes into the desired pattern based on coding he appends to them. He even diagrams out his stories’ structures: “A Roomful of Hovings Rorimer” (1967) is two trajectories of topics converging on a vertex, the crux of the story—then-Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving’s Princeton years. “Travels in Georgia” (1973), about his odyssey around that state in the company of a roadkill-eating biologist, unspools itself in a spiral.

Still, writing remains an anguished, halting process (Draft No. 4 refers to the laboriously eked out money draft)—confidence an account that is zeroed out each time he files a piece. The picnic table funk, he points out, occurred when he was a New Yorker writer of almost two years standing:

You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would…Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed.

For McPhee, writing occupies a negative space, trammeled by doubt and dissatisfaction:

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.

There’s succor in these words for every agonized scribe. And McPhee is suspicious of anyone who professes otherwise:

…[I]f you tell people that you ‘just love to write,’ you may be delusional…And…unless you can see those dark clunky spots that are giving you such a low opinion of your prose as it develops—how are you going to be able to tone it up and make it work?

coverYou won’t find such psychodrama in that all-time classic of writing instruction William Strunk Jr., and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style. But we live in a more confessional age.

Still, McPhee is heir to E. B. White, with whom he crossed over at The New Yorker during the 1960s and ’70s. The authoritative standing of “Strunk and White” stems in part from its concision. Draft No. 4 emulates this in places with epigrammatic élan: “A lead is good not because it dances, fires canons, or whistles like a train but because it is absolute to what follows,” writes McPhee. Or, “You will never land smoothly on borrowed vividness.” On the other hand, lest you forget the basics: “If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out.”

But Draft No. 4 is a different kind of book—a writing manual-cum-professional memoir. This invites a certain windy raconteurship. There are intriguing glimpses of the operation behind The New Yorker’s exquisitely modulated prose—a kind of virtual organization: a loose-knit coalition of free-floating writers (McPhee describes his own status there as that of “an unsalaried freelance close to the magazine”) attended by battalions of fact-checkers, editors, and sundry other “usage geniuses.” But does the world need more anecdotes about the fastidious and phobic ways of “Mr. Shawn,” the “one-man we” of the mid-20th-century New Yorker—editor from 1952 to 1987? We learn, for example, that he deemed the “irregular restrictive ‘which’…[allowable]…under certain unusual and special circumstances…at the head of a restrictive clause,” but was known to draw the line at ads for “genital-contact clothing” (more diverting: his nickname among staffers—“the iron mouse”). Likewise, an extended discussion of the vagaries of the magazine’s fact-checking process seems strictly for New Yorker completists.

And this begs questions about the rarefied air in which McPhee draws breath.

coverLet me disclose at this point my own prejudices. Before I read McPhee I felt little disposed to do so. There was something reproachful about his serial industry and studious reasonableness of tone, the way he abjured the red meat of topical currency in his road-less-travelled pieces. They seemed bloodless, vegetal, skewed toward the genteel leisure-time pursuits of upper-middle class outdoorsy types—canoe-fabrication, angling, etc. Then, out of a native interest in its subject, I read Levels of the Game, his account of the 1968 U.S. Open tennis semifinal between Clark Graebner, an original specimen of white privilege, and Arthur Ashe, African American, product not of the country club set but of municipal courts. I found an enthralling play-by-play freighted with character studies of its protagonists retailed in a style that while correct was never stuffy. And McPhee could cut loose; I still remember a tossed-off description of a tennis ball machine that nails the thing’s dyspeptic propulsion: “a four-hundred-dollar mortar that belches tennis balls.”

Still, I felt reverberations of my original disposition in reading Draft No. 4. Principally, who apart from McPhee and perhaps a handful of his fellow New Yorker independent contractors gets to devote months to researching subjects of, at best, tenuous topicality then unburden themselves of them over novella-length word-counts?

coverIn Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, another master of nonfiction narrative Tracy Kidder and his editor Richard Todd describe a classic McPhee feature as a “piece of fine cabinetry, fussy and great…” Draft No. 4 is, no less, a period piece; a treasury of keen insights from a painstaking craftsman and a capsule of the charmed status of an elite practitioner during what looks today like a golden era of magazine journalism replete with extended parlays with editors, protracted fact-checking triangulation, and two weeks on a picnic table.

has written for The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, NPR, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Financial Times, Times Higher Education and the South China Morning Post among other publications.

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