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


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?
You 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.

Let 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?

In 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.

He Doesn’t Wear a Game Face: On David Foster Wallace’s ‘String Theory’

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It isn’t hard to see the appeal of tennis to the writer. It’s a solitary endeavor (singles at least) in which success rests on personal agency. There’s the aesthetic aspect — the spectacle at its highest level of lithe athleticism and impudent finesse. And it does convenient duty as literary device; an arena for mano-a-mano character study and conflict in which how one plays offers a window into personality. This is how tennis is characteristically treated in literature. In The Information, Martin Amis, devout hacker himself, pits rivalrous writers against one another inside the lines — the supple but showy virtuosity of Richard Tull versus the point-grubbing retrieving of Gwynn Barry. It’s also the premise of perhaps the finest work on the subject, Levels of the Game, in which John McPhee freights a play-by-play of the 1968 U.S. Open semi-final between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner with an examination of the nation’s sociopolitical fault lines, as crystallized by the players’ contrasting styles. Besides Amis, literary fans include Vladimir Nabokov (almost as adroit with racket as butterfly net), Anne Lamott, ardent Federerphile, J.M. Coetzee, Ellen Gilchrist, Abraham Verghese, and dedicated court cruiser Geoff Dyer.

All of this to say that David Foster Wallace has good company in being seduced by tennis. But he is perhaps the only author of serious literary repute to have himself wielded a racket in semi-serious competition. Back when he looked upon reading novels chiefly as a fun way to ingest facts, Wallace was, in his own words, “a near great junior tennis player,” with a dour, attritional style that took him, at 14, to 17th in the U.S. Tennis Association’s Midwestern rankings for his age bracket. Here, he stalled out amid delayed puberty and salubrious country club courts that quashed his competitive advantage: a mastery of the elements on the wind-strafed municipal courts on which lowlier tournaments are typically contested. But tennis remained a lifelong passion; a personal touchstone that, most prominently among the references to it in his fiction, supplied a backdrop for Infinite Jest. It was a topic he also returned to repeatedly in his non-fiction. Across his career, it was perhaps “his most consistent theme at the surface level,” notes John Jeremiah Sullivan in his introduction to String Theory, the new collection of Wallace’s essays on tennis issued by the Library of America.

Wallace knew his Levels of the Game — a marked-up copy is among the personal effects in his archive at the University of Texas at Austin — and he’s known to have esteemed McPhee as a writer. But his approach to the sport is altogether more technical, not to mention rambunctious and free-wheeling. These proclivities are evident from the title of String Theory’s strongest piece, published in 1996 in Esquire, “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness.” And they are on display in that essay’s opening, which, as Sullivan notes, emulates McPhee’s limpid first lines in Levels — “Arthur Ashe, his feet apart, his knees slightly bent, lifts a tennis ball into the air…” — but layers on the “thick” description:
When Michael Joyce of Los Angeles serves, when he tosses the ball and his face rises to track it, it looks like he’s smiling, but he’s not really smiling — his face’s circumoral muscles are straining with the rest of his body to reach the top of the ball at the top of the toss’s rise.
Joyce is not a member of the game’s elite a la Ashe en route to the U.S. Open title, but “the 79th best tennis player on planet earth” toiling in the pre-tournament qualifying rounds of U.S. Open warm-up event, the Canadian Open. Like McPhee, Wallace is interested in those levels of the game, but, more literally, as in the mountains beyond mountains of tennis’s pecking order. The ex-junior standout Wallace remains an avid player. He packs his racket for Montreal, fancying he can hold his own on the practice court with some “hot young U.S pros,” then documents his “awe and sad surprise” at beholding Joyce in action:

“This is a man who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot square area 78 feet away over a yard-high net, hard. He can do this something like 90% of the time.”

The difference of degree is such that it is a difference of kind. “I do not play and never have played the same game as these low-ranked pros.”

Still, even this altitudinous level is a foothill compared to the game’s summit. Wallace documents the small deficits that add up to a gulf between Joyce (who made it to the second round of the main draw in Montreal and topped out as world number 62 a few months later) and then-top-ranked male Andre Agassi — the fleetness of foot that is a half-step slower, the timing a hair off, the kink in his backhand versus Agassi’s fluid stroke.

Wallace’s deploys his full shot-making repertoire throughout the piece. The expression of forbearance Joyce wears waiting out the tantrum of a player he is soundly beating reminds him of “Vegas dealers…when a gambler they’re cleaning out is rude or abusive.” He discerns an “abacus of sweat” on another player’s brow and evokes the odd grace of tennis’s rites: “ball-boys move for the ball and reconfigure complexly…” He’s particularly inspired on the idiosyncrasies of former great players — “the odd Tourettic way [Vitas] Gerulaitis used to whip his head from side to side while bouncing the ball before his toss…,” and the resemblance of John McEnroe, at serve, to “a figure on an Egyptian frieze” (anyone doubting the acuity of these observations can verify them here and here). He’s also satirical; mock-swooning over Joyce — “you can just tell by looking at him out there that he’s totally likeable and cool” — and almost epigrammatic: “the realities of the men’s professional tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughter house does to a well-presented cut of sirloin.” But, finally, he is exercised by the grandeur and “grotesquery” of Joyce:
…[T]he radical compression of his attention and self has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art — something few of us get to be. It’s allowed him to visit and test parts of his psyche that most of us do not even know for sure we have, to manifest in concrete form virtues like courage, persistence in the face of pain of exhaustion, performance under wilting scrutiny and pressure.
The collection’s best-known piece “Federer Both Flesh and Not” (published in 2006 in The New York Times) opens with Wallace’s fanboy rapture at various sublime passages of play (“Federer Moments”) conjured by the Swiss maestro, and then considers the disruptive effect of the equipment arms race widely held to have reduced tennis to brutal slugfest. How then to explain the black swan of Roger Federer — his sovereignty atop modern muscular tennis with a supposedly atavistic game founded on elegance and artistry? Foremost among the capabilities conferred by larger, lighter rackets is the ability to whip them though the air more vigorously to impart ball-blurring spin, notes Wallace. This permits superior power — by lacing the ball with vicious topspin so it describes a sharper parabola over the net, players can strike the ball harder while landing it within the lines. But there are other dividends: the ability to find oblique angles — previously only possible at net — from the baseline. Federer, trafficking in power, spin, and angle, is tapping the full arsenal of possibilities opened up by advances in racket technology. He is a one-man insurgency, revolutionizing the sport “from within the modern game…showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh.”

Stated thus, it sounds like a narrowly technical essay. But Wallace is collecting string for a wider point about the transfiguring effect of outsize achievement in any realm. Browsing Wimbledon’s junior tournament he observes a “variegated ballet…[d]rop shots and mixed spins, off-speed serves, gambits planned three points ahead.”

“Genius is not replicable,” he concludes. “Inspiration, though, is contagious and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”

In Federer himself, Wallace seems less interested. Throughout this collection he gravitates to more relatable figures — the also-ran Joyce and, in the book’s most poignant essay, “the first real child star in women’s tennis,” Tracy Austin. Wallace’s review of Austin’s Beyond Center Court: My Story appears at first blush a mismatch as he skewers the fluffy inanities of a standard-issue, ghost-written ex-athlete’s autobiography. But he’s driving toward something deeper. Austin was U.S. Open champion at 16, world number one at 17, then her body rebelled. Chronically injured, she effectively retired at 21 before attempting a comeback five years later that ended before it began after a van broadsided her car smashing her knee.

“The facts of Tracy Austin’s life and its trajectory are almost classically tragic,” writes Wallace.
[Her] most conspicuous virtue, a relentless workaholic perfectionism that combined with raw talent to make her such a prodigious success turned out to be also her flaw and bane…The only thing Tracy Austin had ever known how to do, her art…was removed from her at an age when most of us are just starting to think seriously about committing ourselves to some pursuit…
This was a sports autobiography that, because of the “transcendently interesting…career” of its subject, could have lived up to its dust jacket billing, delivering a “truly inspirational” tale about adversity and the human spirit. But Wallace delves beyond the book’s platitudes — what if Austin’s anodyne account penetrates to the “essence” of great athletes; how they can “simply and superbly act” in the clutch?
What if, when Tracy Austin writes that after her 1989 car crash, ‘I quickly accepted that there was nothing I could do about it,’ the statement is not only true but exhaustively descriptive of the entire acceptance process she went through? Is someone stupid or shallow because she can say to herself that there’s nothing she can do about something bad and so she’d better accept it, and thereupon simply accept it with no more interior struggle? Or is that person maybe somehow natively wise and profound…?
“[T]he only certainty seems to be that such a person does not produce very good prose memoir,” he concludes.

This was not a problem with the thought-addled Wallace. He doesn’t wear a game face in these pieces. The sense one gets reading them is of a discovery process, the author stumbling sentence-by-sentence toward understanding — a task to which he wholly devotes his profane, fucked-up, intellectually omnivorous self.

A collection of discretely commissioned pieces for assorted magazines marshalled over 15 years might feel disjointed. But String Theory is remarkable for its cohesiveness and seamlessness with the preoccupations of Wallace’s fiction. The idea of submission to boredom as a portal to enlightenment is a keynote of Wallace’s final, uncompleted work The Pale King, his biographer D.T. Max has written. Prefiguring this by more than a decade, in the first piece in this collection from 1991, Wallace writes of the benediction he and his playing partner experience following a particularly grueling on-court workout and the impulse behind his native love for tennis:
We were both in the fugue-state that exhaustion through repetition brings on, a fugue-state I’ve decided that my whole time playing tennis was spent chasing…a mental state at once flat and lush, numbing and yet exquisitely felt.
Wallace played the game with all of his person. The same intellectually questing, sensorily hungry spirit is present in his writing about it. The result is a terrific book about a human activity and life outside the lines that trammel it.