McPhee ’53, Wright ’79, Achenbach ’82 discuss writing process, journalism| October 24, 2017
“So, what happens now?” Pulitzer Prize-winning Ferris Professor of Journalism John McPhee ’53 half-jokingly, half-nervously asked as he handed the reins of the conversation over to his two former students, Robert Wright ’79 and Joel Achenbach ’82, at a book discussion on Tuesday evening at Labyrinth Books.
Accompanied by Wright and Achenbach, two accomplished writers in their own rights, McPhee answered questions relating to his extensive career as a writer of creative nonfiction and discussed his most recent book, “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.”
Wright is a journalist, writer, and professor, with one of his most popular books being “The Evolution of God.” Also a journalist, Achenbach serves as a staff writer for The Washington Post and is the author of books including “Why Things Are” and “A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher.”
Because “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process” focuses on — as its name suggests — the process writers go through in reaching final drafts, much of McPhee’s talk centered around prominent characteristics of his own work style. A key feature of his personal writing style, according to McPhee, is structure. In explaining this focus on structure in writing, McPhee highlighted the indispensability of a strong framework to any piece of writing’s natural flow.
“When you say you don’t particularly notice [structure], great, that’s what I want to hear. It should be as visible as a person’s bones,” he said.
Even with this subtlety, however, McPhee’s focus on structure is not lost to his readers. An attendee of the event, local New Jersey journalist and author Richard Smith, called McPhee, “a hero and an inspiration.” Smith cited McPhee’s emphasis on structure as a key element in his admiration for the renowned journalist.
“McPhee explodes this myth that art has to be just so totally spontaneous, and that if you structure and analyze it, it ruins it,” Smith said. “I think the fact that he has so much structure, and really researches and reports so assiduously, liberates it and makes it so wonderful.”
In discussing conventional journalistic structures, McPhee touched on the common journalistic tool of the nut graph, a kind of thesis statement to a piece of journalism. He explained that he does not like nut graphs in his own writing.
“There is nothing wrong with that [using a nut graph], but to assume that there has to be such a thing is extremely formulaic, and I think formulaic writing is not going to lead to every possibility you could think of,” McPhee explained.
As far as the drafting process goes, McPhee espoused what he described as a common lesson he teaches to his students of journalism: that a piece “takes as long as it takes” until it is finished. As for when McPhee is able to gauge when one of his pieces is finished, he said he feels lucky to have always had an innate sense of when he has reached the end of a piece of writing, even from the start of his career.
“I’ve always been lucky. I’ve always known when I was done. When I hit a point, I can do no better; that’s the best I can do,” McPhee said.
As a writer of nonfiction, McPhee has historically been known to keep himself out of his stories, even going so far as to not include a book jacket photo in his books. When pressed by Achenbach about what “the perils of the author being present” truly are, McPhee expressed his preference for keeping the story about its subject, not its author.
“You have the material that somebody collects in a nonfiction piece and you want to talk about it, the author might want to prance around and show off and do all kinds of things so that the piece becomes about the author and not about the subject,” McPhee said. “When that happens, it kind of curls my lip.”
On the topic of the reporting process versus writing, McPhee noted that in reporting, you never know what you miss.
“Some of these nuggets that come along are opportune and you never know what just went by that you didn’t get,” he said. “If you stay at it long enough, you can assemble material from which you can then do a piece of writing.”
McPhee, Wright, and Achenbach's discourse concluded on McPhee’s role as a professor, with Wright and Achenbach recounting several of their own memories of McPhee in the classroom.
According to Achenbach, “an obvious lesson of John McPhee” that he took away as a student was “that all the words matter, and they matter a lot.”
Achenbach added that McPhee’s personal investment in each of his students had a tremendous impact on him as writer.
“[McPhee] took my writing more seriously than I did,” Achenbach said. “John taught us to actually revere the language and to treat words as though they are not interchangeable.”
McPhee has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965 and has published almost 30 books. In discussing the evolution of his career, McPhee noted that the process of being a writer is a long and steady one.
“I was consistently and absolutely rejected until I was 31. And I tell that story to students … not to be discouraging, but because I think it’s encouraging. Writers grow slowly,” he said. “You learn writing in the volume of what you do. And other people like me can comment as you go along.”
The event took place at 6 p.m. at Labyrinth Books on 122 Nassau St.