In an interview with MFA candidate Raffi Joe Wartanian, John McPhee reflects on the panic, procrastination, and prolific output behind his celebrated approach to nonfiction. McPhee’s 38th book The Patch is one of seven essay collections for the longtime Princeton University faculty member and alumnus who began writing for The New Yorker in 1963. A recipient of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize (General Nonfiction) and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle, McPhee is regarded as one of the major figures in helping shape the form of creative nonfiction.
RW: The introductory passage to “An Album Quilt” (Part II) says that 75 percent of 250,000 words were thrown out. How would you describe the 75 percent of the text that didn’t make the cut?
JM: Well I just didn’t think it was interesting or amusing. I was looking at this stuff for its possibilities to be entertaining today, and not just to be something from the past that was being preserved. Those are the scales on which I weighed it. I had looked at some passages and thought, “Nobody wants to read that,” and would throw it out. But also they’re fragments like a little tiny thing about Sophia Loren out of a whole cover story. That’s the kind of thing I was hunting for. I had this quilt idea in mind.
RW: Seeing you revisit your archives and pull out older pieces — about Sophia Loren, Oscar Robertson, Cary Grant, and others — was an eye-opening process. When digging older essays out of your archive, what did you notice about yourself as a younger writer? How have you evolved?
JM: When I was at Time Magazine, I was paid to write one pun after the other in the so-called “Miscellany” section. That’s a good way to get rid of puns. I don’t think I’ve made six puns ever since. I think I learned a lot in those days writing for Time. When I started writing for The New Yorker I was about 30 or 31-years-old, and then became a staff writer there at 33. So there’s 10 or 15 years of writing stuff that happened before I got there. Those New Yorker pieces stand up okay for me. I don’t look back on them as something I would do differently.
RW: I was also looking at Draft No. 4 (2017) before this conversation and was intrigued by your use of structure diagrams. If you had to draw a structure diagram for The Patch, what would it look like?
JM: It would be whatever number of pieces are up front in section one: that’s about six pieces. There would be six quite separate structured diagrams there of course. They’re separate pieces that were published in The New Yorker, and then An Album Quilt (Part II) was the most interesting thing structurally because of what it could’ve been and what people might say it should be, but not me. For example, it could be organized chronologically. It could be organized with Cary Grant here and somebody else there all laid out in some kind of index; in other words, it could be much more formal. But that would stiffen it up and it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as it would be as if it were completely freelance and random. And so as I think I said in the text there, I laid out 56 little cards with some code on them that refer to each of those little fragments and I kept shuffling them around with no specific organizational goal except that it should be random and a little bit surprising and overall creates a kind of antique feeling about it. My students today don’t know who Cary Grant was and so you have this sort of sense of being in the past but not in an organized way like, “Here’s 1972 and here’s 1973!” So I opted for a miscellaneous and random structure that wouldn’t seem like a structure but it is one because that was the criterion.
RW: In “An Album Quilt” (Part II), you write about American celebrities — Cary Grant, Richard Burton, The Big “O” Oscar Robertson — and places of prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. How have you seen the country’s attitude towards celebrities shift since the ’50s and ’60s?
JM: That’s an interesting question, and I really don’t think I’m prepared to answer it. I had an intense exposure, as it were, to the world of show business and because I wrote a weekly section of Time Magazine. I was very conscious of that world at that time. I went to every single Off-Broadway play, every single Broadway play, and so on. But since I started writing for The New Yorker, I think it was just because I had such a plate full of show business beforehand, I didn’t write about it after that at all. Therefore, my sense of it grows vaguer and vaguer over time. I paid less and less attention to it. So in other words, I don’t feel I could pronounce something in response to your good question.
RW: I’m relieved that those things shifted into the background and you foregrounded other material to work with like nature, geography, and the craft of writing. In the book’s opening essay, “The Patch,” you paint a beautiful portrait of fishing and your father’s final months. The portrayal of your father and fishing are in such sharp and beautiful relief. It made me wonder: what kind of a fisher was he? How did he approach the craft? How was he introduced to the sport?
JM: Well, he grew up in Youngstown Ohio in what is now the inner city there, and I don’t think he was fishing much when he was a kid. I can’t say how he got interested, but he was interested. I was born into a family where the father liked to fish. He was a physician to athletic teams and all that kind of thing. Somehow he got into a camp run by the Ohio State football coaches. He never worked there, but he came from Ohio. At any rate this was on the Baie des Chaleurs in Canada and that’s big-time salmon country in New Brunswick across the bay in Goss Bay, and my father fished for salmon with his bamboo rod in the Restigouche River up there. At that time I was two years old, so when I got just a little bit older, I was in the presence of someone who really loved fishing even though I had no idea how he got that way. When I would start playing sports in high school I kind of lost interest in it and didn’t fish again until I was older as it says in the piece. You know, that piece, “The Patch,” is the title piece of this book and there was a piece called “Silk Parachute” that was the title piece of the book before Draft No. 4, and “Silk Parachute” is a little thing, it’s only four pages long or something, but it starts out, “When your mother is 94 years old duh-dah-duh-dah,” and it’s about my mother. And so I’ve kind of been looking forward to this piece where the title piece is about my father. The two things kind of bookend each other.
RW: In the 2017 New York Times Magazine profile by Sam Anderson, you mentioned that when you write, you don’t teach, and that when you teach, you don’t write. When you are writing, what is your routine like? Is it a daily ritual?
JM: It’s in some ways a little comical because I don’t do anything. I start the day knowing what it is I want to accomplish because of the structure that’s been built beforehand, and notes that go with the part of it I’ve reached. Once I get all that set up, I go from beginning to end. I don’t write the middle. So I go along and I know today what I’m going to do, but that’s easy to say. It’s another thing [to do it]. I go there, and I sit, and I stare at the wall, and I used to sharpen pencils but nobody needs to do that anymore, and I made tea for years and I don’t drink tea much anymore. And, in short, I procrastinate, mess around, but I think there’s a little touch of writer’s block that gets in a writer’s way every day when a writer tries to write, because you are changing yourself from one milieu. You’re just in your general life, and you’re suspending that in order to try to reproduce something, to describe something, to go through some kind of membrane and into another world for a time, and that membrane is pretty stiff and difficult to get through and it has to be gotten through each and every day. Panic plays a role in this for me because by five o’clock or something I haven’t done anything all day and it’s five o’clock and I think, “I’m gonna lose this day 100 percent.” And somehow that squeezes something out of me and I’ll write for a couple of hours or an hour and a half. Long ago I learned not to let it run on because if I let it run on, because it was going well, and I keep going — seven, eight, nine, ten o’clock — then I didn’t do anything for the next four days, so I always quit at seven o’clock, and go home and pick it up right in the middle of the same sentence the next day, but not the next morning. Some writers get stuff done in the morning and then they answer mail. It’s their routine. Anything that works is good. But in my case, it’s a case of avoiding it all day long until panic and other things set in and I get a little done. And the next day it’s the same thing and the next day it’s the same thing and cumulatively you’ve got something at the end of a year, but it sure seems slow.
RW: That sounds very familiar to me, especially the panic! I read in a different interview that you are an avid cyclist. Does that help you break through “the membrane” you mentioned earlier? Is cycling part of your process?
JM: No, I do it just to stay in shape and so forth and I do this every other day; to go out for 15 miles on the bicycle. Writing isn’t part of it in any direct way except maybe this: I’m not writing, and I’m not supposed to be writing, and I’m not panicked about writing, and I’m not even thinking about writing except yesterday I was riding around with Robert Wright and we were talking about some book of his. Anyway, bicycling is a beautiful distraction. I ride the bicycle because it’s supposed to be good to get exercise, and because I just love doing it.
RW: When it comes to writing, do you recall the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
JM: [There are] these little mantras that I give, like “a thousand details add up to one impression” — that’s Cary Grant. Bob McGlinn, he was wrong. He told me not to teach. He was a teacher at Deerfield Academy, and he told me that I shouldn’t teach because I should really totally concentrate on writing. There’s no way to prove this, but I think that in the last 40 years or so I’ve written more than I would have if I hadn’t been teaching. I’ve been teaching for 45 years. But see, I only teach in one semester, and so that leaves a lot of time for other things.
RW: It seems that one of the great things with teaching and working with other writers is seeing the different subjects people think and write about and how we start to see these overlapping technical considerations and thematic concerns. It’s really a wonderful way to keep flexing the muscle even if we’re not actively working on something in that moment. What’s the biggest obstacle or set of obstacles you’ve had to overcome?
JM: Each day getting through whatever kind of barricade is there and into doing some writing. Ideas are easy to come by in nonfiction. I think there’s lots of ‘em. They just stream by so you have to get one that you’re gonna work on. Maybe you’re going to work on it two years, three years, twenty years. One thing I got into took twenty years, and I did other things along the way, but not much, It was the geology book I did [Annals of the Former World], it was a twenty year project. I did do other things during those twenty years, but, anyways, I don’t know, it’s a daily kind of thing, not a great big one.
RW: While reading The Patch, it was a dynamic experience to think about the writer of today engaging with a former version of the writerly self. It got me thinking, if you could speak with yourself as a writer from decades ago, what would you say?
JM: Well, I’m very interested in writers in their twenties and their frets and fears because I was eaten up with that kind of worry at that time. You know, you get out of college, and then you want to be a writer, and then you don’t know how to go about it. I try to relax somebody. I think it’s key to tell them that if you make a mistake, if you choose something that turns out not to work out so well about a job or anything like that, you’re going to learn maybe even more from the experience of realizing that you went up the wrong road for you at that time. It isn’t so important at the age of 21 to get “the dream job.” Trial and error is the name of the game and you have a lot of time in there to do that. I’ll say anything I can to relax a person in his twenties because I fretted about this all the time. I couldn’t imagine getting anywhere when I was in my early twenties.
RW: What are three things that most people might not know about you that you think might be generative for someone who’s picking up one of your books to read?
JM: Gee, I don’t know, the thing is the experience with readers is that there’s every sort of reaction in the world possible so the best you can do is do your best. This is from the point of view of the writer, not the point of view of the reader. I always know when I’m finished [writing a project], and I think I’m lucky with that because a lot of writers don’t know, and they keep wanting to change it change it change it because they’re not confident that they’ve finished it off well. The criterion is that it’s the best you can do. It may not be the best in the world, but that’s the best I can do, and then I walk away from it. There’s no way to gauge what readers’ response will be but there is this point about what we’re talking about which is that I think it’s a big mistake to market research your work, that you’d think, “Ah, people are ready for a piece on a, b, c and whatever it is.” And so you go write something because you think it’ll sell and be whatever because it’s something that you sense that the world wants. Write what you’re interested in, and hope that the world is interested too.
RW: I couldn’t agree more with that. Shifting gears, I have a lacrosse question. I went to high school and college in places around Baltimore where lacrosse is like air. Personally, I never got into it; I was more of a cycling and basketball kind of guy. But your essay “Pioneer” deepened my appreciation for the sport, the tactics, the tradition. Why do you think lacrosse grew in popularity, and how do we think about lacrosse as the oldest sport originating from indigenous American tribes?
JM: I am really so pleased that the sport has burgeoned nationally and internationally the way it’s doing and the way it has done. In Florida a few years ago, there was no lacrosse whatsoever and the state is just covered with lacrosse players now. There’s 18,000 lacrosse players or something like that in Japan. The expansion of the sport, I’m so glad to see it happening because I think it’s a really interesting game, beautiful to watch, and so on. The players today are really skillful because they play so much of the year now. They don’t just play in any season or whatever, they play all year long and they’re amazingly good at it. A few years ago it was [mainly] in Baltimore, Syracuse, and Long Island. And before that it was in Baltimore, and eventually Syracuse. When the Syracuse coach Roy Simmons Junior was a kid, they sent him to a New England prep school because there wasn’t enough lacrosse in his own hometown which is one of the biggest hotbeds of lacrosse in the country now. So the growth of this thing has been just wonderful. Baltimore fostered not all of this, but much of it. It’s like the ice sheet in pleistocene ice in North America. It starts in a given place, and then it spreads. The ice started in certain mountains in Canada, not the North Pole, and it spread north, south, east, and west. And then it got so big it covered everything down to New Jersey, and so Baltimore is sort of what in geology is known as “the spreading center of the ice.” What excites me most of all about lacrosse in its current growth is the fact that it is this indigenous American sport that is basically from upstate New York. The Iroquois were absolutely central to it, and now some of the best players in the game are Native Americans.
RW: How have you seen nonfiction change over the years?
JM: Well, there’s a page somewhere, a few sentences in Draft No. 4 where it says that when I was in college, nobody had any regard within the English Department or whatever for nonfiction writing. It just wasn’t worth teaching. You wrap two fish in it or whatever. Nobody would’ve been teaching this subject then, and I teach that subject now in the same college. And that tells you a whole lot about the evolution of this form of writing and whether it’s taken seriously as a composition, as literature. It’s grown that way, and I think I’ve been very lucky to come along during a time that that happened for all kinds of reasons. It’s gratifying to see that kind of attention being paid to this form of writing that simply wasn’t done that much before. But why that happened, I don’t know. I’m sure there are people who can say why that happened, but I’m not one of them. Readers, I think, are more drawn to this kind of writing as writing than they used to be.
RW: Maybe there’s something to be said for how the memoir represents an articulation of American individualism and a declaration of the self within a social framework.
JM: Well, that kind of analysis I’m really not equipped to make. Thoughts and speculations in the vein of what you’ve just been saying, it sounds good to me, but would be unlikely to come from me because my mind isn’t put together that way. I was just lucky that I wanted to write this kind of stuff. That’s another thing: advice to the young! You learn what kind of writer you are by doing the writing, not by imagining that you’re a nonfiction writer or fiction writer or poet or something like that. Try it, and if it doesn’t work out, then try the next thing. That’s what William Shaw at The New Yorker used to say: writers finding out what kinds of writers they are. That’s a very interesting concept, and what we’ve been saying makes me think of it because I think it’s an important point for young writers.
Photo courtesy of the author