After reading this article by Ben Huberman at The Daily Post I clicked over to the Paris Review to read their full interview of John McPhee in a new series called “The Art of Nonfiction.” I always appreciate reading about the process of successful writers. Typically, I find myself inspired to write after reading how their craft evolved. The interview of McPhee did not disappoint in this regard.
McPhee’s description of writing a novel for his college thesis was what stoked my writing fire. His university had, as he said, “a great fight” over whether or not he would be allowed to write a novel for his thesis. No one had before. In the face of opposition, they finally allowed McPhee to proceed. This is how he described the experience:
They asked me to show up on the first day of senior year with thirty thousand words. So I spent the summer in Firestone Library, working in the English grad-study room, writing longhand on yellow pads. I had a real good time in there, working alongside these English grad students, all in various stages of suffering. I got my thirty thousand words done, and then I finished the thing over Christmas. It had a really good structure and was technically fine. But it had no life in it at all. One person wrote a note on it that said, You demonstrated you know how to saddle a horse. Now go find the horse.
But writing teaches writing. And I’ll tell you this, that summer in Firestone Library, I felt myself palpably growing as a writer. You just don’t sit there and write thirty thousand words without learning something.”
Writing teaches writing. That was the line that got me. So even though it was late (I don’t write well when it is late) I pulled out my notebook, set the timer on my Ipad for ten minutes and free wrote about a hospital visit that I recently made. The visit was a profound one—one of those pastoral visits that make you contemplate life, tragedy, and the meaning of it all. I knew I needed to write about it, but hadn’t yet made the time. McPhee inspired me to make the time.
More than anything, I want to learn and grow as a writer—not so much to publish more, or get more followers here on my little blog. But to help me make sense of this world in which we live and pay careful attention to it all. I want to be able to articulate the experiences I have and find my way to new discoveries. The best way to do that, I’ve found, is through my writing. So, thank you, John McPhee, for tonight’s teaching. I am better for it.