Author Archives:

The John McPhee Reader

john mcphee photo2John 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 affect what you do with your laptop.

Writing, Italian Style

They’ve gone. They’ve packed their laptops, narratives and memories of a week together on the Amalfi Coast. Here, they read and critiqued (with love) each other’s work. They laughed and cried and hugged and, when parting, swore to stay in touch. We all ate meals so irresistible it seemed we could raise funds for theContinue Reading

Writing LBJ

An hour before the curtain of “All the Way” at the Neil Simon Theater, two middle-aged women walked past the marquee and saw the oversized photograph of Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson. “Look,” said one. “It’s Mr. White. I didn’t know he was on Broadway.” Referring, of course, to Cranston’s breakout role in “Breaking Bad”Continue Reading

Amalfi Calls Wally Again

That’s Wally Lamb and yours truly looking at something in Praiano. Our gazes are upwards, obviously, so it’s not likely we’re peering at the unrepentant goat that ate Suzanne’s silk scarf. It may just be that we’re admiring the hillside town itself where Wally, Suzanne and I spent  a week last March with the firstContinue Reading

A Toast to Billy Collins

About thirty minutes before the reading by Billy Collins on Wednesday evening, the gates closed at Hill-Stead Museum.  No more cars could be accommodated. It was another poetry traffic jam in Farmington, Ct. By then 1,600 people filled Hill-Stead’s sunken garden. As they awaited the former U.S. Poet Laureate, another 96, many in party attire,Continue Reading

Carolyn Forche and Col. Gaddafi

The subject of the nefarious Colonel did not come up right away. First, there was more digestible dinner conversation in the hour before Carolyn Forche’s recent reading at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. Though she is known  especially for exposing human rights violations, Carolyn recounted a very different phenomenon –a new form of, well, ghostContinue Reading

Not Writing Excuses

Usually, the excuses are along the lines of: I don’t have time to write. (Translated: I’d rather watch the George Zimmerman trial.) I’m not sure I can do it. (Translated:I have a thin skin.) I’ll get around to it someday. (Reality: Someday never comes.) But here is something different, a humanitarian excuse. It is fromContinue Reading

Writing Eulogies: ‘Infidelity’ Version

Jerry Price’s daughter, Heather, called recently with news about her dad, my only close friend from the Vietnam War. He had suffered a severe stroke, and then, as the days passed, his condition deteriorated. He died last Monday at a hospice in rural Missouri. Heather asked if I would write a eulogy. I complied, ofContinue Reading

Jodi Arias, a Memoir

Exclusive excerpt from the Introduction of “Just Jodi,” a memoir to be published in June 2015: There is a law about not profiting from the sales of books in which a criminal describes her crimes. But then this book isn’t my fault. Over the years people have said to me various words — using nounsContinue Reading

Sweet Clarity: Zinsser on Mitchell and Ruff

The jazz pianist Dwike Mitchell died this week, and I thought of Willie Ruff, his playing partner for almost 60 years, but mostly of William Zinsser, the teacher of all of us in the matter of writing well. Zinsser, of course, gave us On Writing Well, Writing to Learn, and other classics on craft. ButContinue Reading