John McPhee’s work appears in nearly every writing class I teach. I offer it as a prime example of the carefully constructed and compelling narrative, though I have little interest in the subjects he writes about. I was never curious, for example, about the geology of the Grand Tetons or the intricacies of cattle branding in Nevada. But he always sucks me in. He does this by reminding us that there is only one story that matters, and it isn’t really about rocks or cows — it’s the story of people against the odds. Never mind that it involves heavy science or vegetable farming or pinball. McPhee is the master of presenting the human stake, no matter the subject.
The New Yorker issue of April 7 had another excerpt from his new book on writing that has also sucked me in. He drops some some big names here– Jackie Gleason, Woody Allen, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, etc. All were interview subjects during his Time magazine days. He writes about his method of interviewing, somewhere between Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo and the kind of raw journalism I practiced in the late 1960s when I thought I could remember every quote someone gave me so didn’t write a thing down. Truman Copote had the same idea — he said he could memorize everything, and did. The difference was that Truman wrote a classic book, In Cold Blood, and I gave the daily fish wrapper accounts of the bombastic Munroe Falls town council where members brought tape recorders so they could sue fellow councilmen for slander.
Anyway, do take a look at McPhee’s piece. You’ll be reminded of what it really takes to succeed — the meticulousness, the passion, the craft. (I’m particularly thinking of the way McPhee describes Gleason’s “kettledrum laugh” and the (suddenly) late Mickey Rooney’s intolerance of journalists.
Well, feast on on this for yourself, and all of McPhee’s work. Read it for enjoyment and for craft. And see how quickly it will affect what you do with your laptop.