Sunday, September 16, 2012


This is encouraging, in a way. John McPhee, staff writer for the New Yorker and one of the most successful and accomplished nonfiction writers ever, author of over thirty books, describes his writing process:

It may sound like I’ve got some sort of formula by which I write. Hell, no! You’re out there completely on your own—all you’ve got to do is write. OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea. I mean, I used to make tea all day long. And exercise, I do that every other day. I sharpened pencils in the old days when pencils were sharpened. I just ran pencils down. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four—this is every day. This is damn near every day. It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy. I mean, you’re going to lose the day if you keep this up long enough. Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again. So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five and start writing? Because I need those seven hours of gonging around. I’m just not that disciplined. I don’t write in the morning—I just try to write.

I've read several of his books over the years, including Coming into the Country when I travelled around Alaska years ago, and Annals of the Former World about the geology of the North American continent. They are beautifully crafted, although very much about particular people as much as ideas. They are almost always very biographical, telling a story, which is no doubt what makes them more commercial, too.


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