Over the weekend, I read John McPhee’s new book, Draft 4: On the Writing Process. I am drawn to almost any “writer on writing” book, but I was particularly interested in this one because I took McPhee’s writing seminar at Princeton many years ago. He had taught a course on the literature of fact for decades, but in the spring of 1998, he decided to offer it as a freshman seminar. I happened to be a freshman. An upperclassman I knew through journalism circles took me aside and said I had to apply. So I did. I was chosen and, like hundreds of students before me, quickly became a fan of McPhee as a writer, and as a person.
He taught us about structure, about set pieces, about fact-checking. He taught us that the thesaurus will lead you astray but not the dictionary when you’re looking for an alternate word with the right connotations. He was generous with his time, meeting with each of us individually after each of our five or so writing assignments to go through what worked and what didn’t (some stuff definitely worked better than other stuff. Some stuff didn’t work at all!). He was kind enough to be encouraging, telling me on one assignment that of course the last piece never writes the next one, but that I was reasonable at this sort of thing, and I should reach out to him if I needed to hear that again. I assume he has written that on hundreds (thousands?) of essays but he was sincere: I did reach out at one low point not long after graduation, and he complied.
What I think was most fascinating, though, was to see what it means to be a working writer. As in Draft 4, McPhee would talk about getting stuck on pieces, and having to go outside for a while to think it through. Or that sometimes you have to go through all your notes again. Or try to explain to someone what you mean to say, which often reveals this truth to yourself. He talked about the back and forth with editors and fact-checkers. We read many of his books and he showed how he put them together, and even things that occurred to him afterwards that he was kicking himself about. Like that “Arctic” comes from a Greek word that has to do with being near bears. His book Coming into the Country is all about encounters with bears in the far north of Alaska, but with all the other research he did, he didn’t get that linguistic connection until later.
(I wrote a draft of this post when I was about 75 percent of the way through Draft 4. As I wrote that last anecdote, the lessons we learned on fact-checking came back to me. Did I just get that last story right? But he told it toward the end of the book — I did!)
Anyway, the spring semester of 1998 was many many years ago (20, actually) and I’m not sure at the time I had much conception of what my life would look like 20 years later. Like any clueless freshman, I probably took for granted that my work was being edited by a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and I should try to memorize every detail because that wouldn’t be a common occurrence later on. Youth is wasted on the young. So, I suppose, are many aspects of a Princeton education.
But, happily, writing is still a big part of what I do. Not many of us from that freshman seminar chose writing as our profession, but some of us did. These past few days I’ve had several moments of realizing, yes, this is life as a working writer. This is what it looks like. I approved a cover for my next book. I had a conversation with my editor about the last changes before we go into copy-editing, and then I had another conversation with many people at my imprint about a potential next project. After, I spent a while talking with my agent about it. On Sunday I traveled to St. Louis to give a speech, and while there a signed a table full of one of my previous books (see picture). This really never gets old. But the last book never writes the next one and now I need to hunker down and develop an outline for what I’ll work on over the next few months. Think about the structure. Maybe somewhere around draft 4 it will be getting where it needs to be….
In other weekend news: Traveling to St. Louis over the weekend kind of limited other sorts of weekend activities, but a few other highlights… we did “date night” on Friday night, which is always fun. We tried many autumn related beers. I finished War and Peace! More on that in another post. I spent a lot of time playing with the 2-year-old in the back yard on Saturday. At one point he wanted me to lie down next to him on the stone walk way and look at the clouds. We did. He told me you could see things up there, like “kitty litter, bubblegum, maybe a poopy diaper.” Where did he get that list from?? That’s not what most people see in the clouds! And then, a huge gift from my husband: I got a text after my speech in St. Louis that he had taken all four kids to get flu shots. It is hard to even describe how happy I am that I don’t need to deal with that.