Different writers can mean different things to people living in different parts of the world. In Scotland, for example, the American journalist and non-fiction author John McPhee is best known for his 1970 book, The Crofter and the Laird – an account of a year spent living on the island of Colonsay with his wife and two daughters. As a staff writer for the New Yorker and also a descendant of the McPhees of Colonsay, he was able to bring a unique perspective to his descriptions of island life as he observed it in the late 1960s: respectful of tradition yet at the same time bound to see the island’s various cultural quirks with the fresh and at times bewildered eyes of a liberal American urbanite (and one who had just lived through the Summer of Love to boot). The typical Scottish view of McPhee, then, is perhaps as an outsider who came for a year, wrote one very good book and then went home again. In America, by contrast, he’s a revered man of letters, the author of 34 books, some of which speak eloquently of the American experience (Coming into the Country, Uncommon Carriers), and some of which tackle subjects that most writers would do their best to avoid – notably geology, nuclear physics and the construction of birch bark canoes. Whatever he writes about, though, McPhee somehow manages to make it not just accessible but fascinating; as one Stateside reviewer of this book of essays put it, if there was such a thing as a hall of fame for American non-fiction writers, “John McPhee would be on the first ballot.”
Although he now teaches journalism at Princeton, McPhee is still a staff writer for the New Yorker, as he has been since 1965, and while he has ranged widely in the topics he has covered for the magazine over the years, more recently he has turned his attention to his own creative process, penning a series of essays on “The Writing Life”. All but one of the essays in this book have previously appeared in the New Yorker, and they deal with everything from the mechanics of writing – fundamentals like structure and language – to more practical concerns such as interview techniques and dealing with editors. As other critics have observed, a lot of what McPhee has to say on practical matters is now hopelessly out of date, largely because the timescales he has spent much of his career working to – sometimes with several months to devote to a single story – are simply not realistic by today’s standards. But these essays shouldn’t really be read as an instruction manual but rather as an important (and often highly entertaining) record of a glorious, unhurried period in the history of journalism – a time when a writer could spend “three weeks with a flying game warden” or “two weeks with a Nevada brand inspector” in the course of writing a magazine feature, and still make enough money to keep a roof over his head.
That said, there is much wisdom to be gleaned from his notes on writing: the benefits of using a dictionary rather than a thesaurus when searching for the mot juste, for example, or the myriad ways in which writers of non-fiction can alter the impact of a story simply by changing the order in which they release information to the reader.
Anyone aspiring to make a living from writing long-form journalism or literary non-fiction should read this book, absorb its lessons on the art of crafting clear and compelling prose, and then accept that the professional world McPhee was lucky enough to inhabit is now gone.
Draft No. 4: On The Writing Process, By John McPhee, Text Publishing, 192pp, £8.99