Master of Form
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process
By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017, 208 Pages
When it comes to contemporary nature writers, John McPhee is a Sequoia among shrubs. He has spent more than 50 years at The New Yorker and written 32 books, including Encounters with the Archdruid, his acclaimed 1972 profile of dam-quashing activist David Brower, who would later found Earth Island Institute. McPhee wrote about Alaska and the value of wilderness in Coming into the Country, compared hydraulic mining’s swift destruction with the crawl of geologic time in Assembling California, and perfected a prose style that makes subjects as ordinary as oranges and lacrosse sublime.
In Draft No. 4 McPhee examines writing in that peerless voice – fact-dense and laced with a gleeful, often self-deprecatory wit – that made him famous. For those who think inspiration fuels art, McPhee’s quasi-mathematical approaches may shock. Encounters with the Archdruid, for example, didn’t start with Brower as muse, but flowed from an abstract structural challenge: ABC over D. McPhee hunted until he found a “D” in Brower and three foils – the numerator’s “A,” “B,” and “C” – for the environmentalist to interact with. The completed fraction formed a master profile from three shorter ones.
Elsewhere, McPhee details how Kedit, a text editor from personal computing’s early days, helps him “find all the times I use any word or phrase in a given piece” and “how many lines separate each from the next.”
McPhee’s process reveals much about his mind, which is not only methodical but also unusually spatially perceptive. The opening chapters include lovely diagrams – a spiral, a series of ovals aligned in a V-shape, circles dangling from a line – that depict how time, character, and theme converge in his various works. The spare drawings make writing seem easy, but McPhee insists it never is. He recounts soothing his novelist daughter’s anxieties before returning “to my own writing, my own inability to get going until five in the afternoon, my animal sense of being hunted, my resemblance to the sand of Gibraltar.”
But you needn’t be a tormented scribe to enjoy Draft No. 4, which is less of a how-to guide than a memoir of an exceptional writing life. In discussing the relationship between writers and editors, McPhee includes a lengthy and highly entertaining account of The New Yorker’s halting embrace of expletives. “Oh, no, not for us,” the editor William Shawn used to admonish writers who championed a profane quote or racy pun. McPhee recalls covering actor Richard Burton in his pre-New Yorker years at Time, working with writer and humorist Calvin Trillin, and running the gauntlet of The New Yorker’s exacting fact checkers.
There’s also the pure pleasure of seeing the world through McPhee’s eyes. A wood is “shadowy, columnar,” a politician nodded off and his mouth “fell open wider than a golf ball,” and a blue-blooded publisher spoke with words that “wore spats.” Nonfiction writers rarely discuss “point of view,” the egocentric and amorphous language of MFA programs, but you’re reminded again that McPhee has it.
Draft No. 4 does offer advice about usage, self-editing, and the reporting process. The title refers to McPhee’s favorite stage of writing. By draft four, he has quelled the terror that comes with facing down and organizing notes accumulated over months of reporting. It’s the line editing draft, in which McPhee refines the story by drawing boxes around unsatisfying words and searching the dictionary for better choices.
Of course, many of today’s science and nature writers, beholden to the bottomless content sump of the Internet, cannot afford so many drafts. McPhee’s New Yorker affiliation made him elite even in the 1960s. Today many of the working conditions he describes – a generous travel budget, unlimited time and freedom to pursue stories – sound fantastical.
The career travails of writers may seem small. But consider that when McPhee began writing, we worried about DDT rather than global warming. Public support was swelling to push a raft of environmental regulations into existence and create the Environmental Protection Agency. Now we have a president seemingly hell-bent on gutting the EPA. The administration has already axed dozens of Obama-era regulations, including ones designed to slow climate change, limit coal mining and offshore oil drilling, and protect wolves and bears on federal land.
Every movement needs bards as well as foot soldiers, and Draft No. 4 gives good guidance to the poets. Here’s hoping it helps them find voices powerful enough to make a difference.