Friday, September 21, 2012

Writers Blogging about Writers Talking about Writing #2

John McPhee


This guy, more commonly referred to as John McPhee, published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, in 1965, but The Paris Review didn't get around to interviewing him until 2010. Slackers (feel free to follow this characterization to all extremes of extrapolation).  Nevertheless, they did - fortunately - interview him and the whole thing went quite well. 

Among other things, McPhee discusses his history with The New Yorker, recurrent friendships with blind men, and a 60,000 word manuscript he read over the phone. Most significantly- a least for the sake of writers needing to blog about writers talking about writing - McPhee discusses the structure in his writing. Here he speaks specifically about working on Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), which covers confrontations between environmentalist David Brower and his ideological opposition:

...I read the notes and then I read them again... looking for logical ways in which to subdivide the material. I’m looking for things that fit together, things that relate. For each of these components, I create a code—it’s like an airport code. If a topic is upstate New York, I’ll write UNY or something in the margin...[Encounters with the Archdruid] had thirty-six components. What I ended up with was thirty-six three-by-five cards, each with a code word...I went into a seminar room here at the university, and I laid the thirty-six cards out on the table.
McPhee then explains:

After a while I was looking at two cards: Upset Rapid, which is a big-time rapid in the Colorado River, and Alpinist. In Upset Rapid, Brower doesn’t ride the rapid. Why doesn’t he ride the rapid? His answer to Floyd Dominy is, “Because I’m chicken.” That’s a pretty strong scene. What next? Well, there are more than seventy peaks in the Sierra Nevada that were first ascended by David Brower, hanging by his fingernails on some cliff. “Because I’m chicken”? This juxtaposition is just loaded with irony, and by putting the Alpinist right after Upset Rapid, in the white space between those two sections there’s a hell of a lot of stuff that I don’t have to say. It’s told by the structure. It’s all crackling along between those two things. So I put those two cards side by side. Now there are thirty-four other parts there on the table.
What McPhee describes here is a fundamental creative process that, most of the time, isn't given much deliberate thought: the arrangement of somethings and nothings. This is largely intuitive and, admittedly, the sheer vastness of somethings and nothings that comprise even a couple of sentences means it's easier this way. The same goes for art (the arrangement of positive and negative space) and music (the arrangement of sounds and silences). The 'nothings' in writing, the absences of details and the gaps in time, serve not only to frame the 'somethings' but to generate meaning that, as McPhee says, "[is] all crackling along between those two things." The Japanese even have a word for this crackling - Ma. Ma is not exactly negative space, or the interval between two things. Rather, it is the thing that takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these things.

At the levels of sentences and paragraphs, we cannot be expected to attend to every something and nothing; however, on larger scales, it becomes more feasible to carefully and deliberately organize for powerful effect.

So, do as McPhee does. Try to draw out the ma in your work.

If you would like to read the interview in its entirety, just click here.

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