Wishing I Were John McPhee

How to Write Narrative Nonfiction About a Master of Narrative Nonfiction

By  Kerri Arsenault

John McPhee is supposed to be a hard guy to interview.

He has been called “a deeply private writer” by the New York Times. Howard Berkes of NPR once noted, “He seems to value privacy,” and a 1978 “All Things Considered” episode went so far as to call him “reclusive.”

None of these statements are true.

McPhee has always been right there in front of us, on every page he ever wrote. For over fifty years, we’ve watched him fly in a Cessna, travel on merchant ships, and peer into black bear dens. And through his observations of the men and women accompanying him, we observe him.

And since 1965, readers of the New Yorker have done exactly that: followed McPhee out into the wider world and in doing so, gained insight about shad fishing, his Scottish ancestors, or how to build a bark canoe.

To know his work is to know John McPhee.

The exquisite craft with which McPhee has described these very un-existential errands has earned him guru status among nonfiction writers, a huge and enduring audience, and a Pulitzer prize.

Speaking from his home in Princeton, his voice level, McPhee reflexively deflects attention from himself. “I’m looking to do these sketches of people and what they do and so on and so forth,” says McPhee. “That’s my primary interest.”

But now with his new book Draft No. 4, a compendium of his New Yorker essays about the writing process, McPhee finally turns his gaze in the direction of something he has largely kept hidden: his craft.

The tutorials he develops in these essays are prescriptive but also personal, and in them, he delivers a lesson not only in writing nonfiction, but in what makes John McPhee, John McPhee. That is about as un-private as one can get.

*

He, rather than I, start our phone conversation with a question illustrating his curiosity about the “real people in real places,” he writes about.

“Where are you calling from?” he wants to know, which leads to where I grew up (Maine), a recurring landscape in his writing. McPhee instantly begins turning my life into a subject porthole.

“A number of things” drew him to Maine, he says. He then tells me about summers spent canoeing in New England and friends like John Kauffmann, who shared so many interests with him that “about twenty percent of my books would owe themselves in whole or in some part to his ideas,” he writes in Draft No. 4.

Friends are important to McPhee; they are interstices that lead him to other worlds and new ideas. Dick Saltonstall, an editor of a Belfast, Maine newspaper lured him to Maine as did his brother-in-law, Alex McPhedran, who introduced him to family doctors of the state, which led to Heirs of General Practice, McPhee’s case study of doctors who practice more comprehensive medicine in a profession of increasing specialization.

“Ideas are where you find them,” he says, referring to Kauffmann, who was “feeding [ideas] to me as if he were making foie gras.”

Or, as demonstrated in his essay, “North of the CP Line,” about his travels in the North Maine Woods, sometimes the ideas find him.

“I left out one big thing,” McPhee continues, laughing. “That is, I got a letter once from a person in Maine complaining I was using his name, so there was that.”

The letter was written by a John McPhee, who I’ll call the Other John McPhee (OJM), a Maine game warden pilot:

In the spring of 1976, he [OJM] wrote to The New Yorker ‘For all practical purposes he is using my name (and I his),’ and he went on to explain that the signature at the bottom of my pieces had from time to time embarrassed him in his principal occupation, as an employee of the State of Maine. He said he tended to agree with some of my thoughts…but he was not at liberty to do so in open print, because he was under oath to be neutral on public issues.

McPhee goes where the story goes even if it leads back to himself, as it usually does–even if it’s a doppelganger, or “my other self” as McPhee calls OJM on the essay’s first page.

McPhee flew with OJM in his Super Cub over the forests of Maine, listening to anecdotes and adventures “of natural disasters and human intrusions, of isolated phenomena and recurrent events,” he writes. Yet in this simple narrative, we learn about paper mill companies shredding trees, the vastness of the region, and the loon, a symbol of Maine’s wildness. The snow. The fishing. The people. In other words, all the things he cares about.

At the end of the essay, McPhee fesses up: “Time and again, when I think of him, and such thoughts start running through my mind, I invariably find myself wishing that I were John McPhee.”

The Other John McPhee, a legend in Northern Maine even to this day, ultimately died in an airplane crash in 2003. Apparently, while radio tracking lynx, he clipped a tree and plummeted into Realty Road by Third Musquacook Lake, about 3.5 hours from the northern end of Baxter State Park. “He was a lovely guy, Jack McPhee,” McPhee says. “One time I was on a canoe in the Allagash River, it was October about this time of year, and every once in a while, his airplane would appear out of nowhere. He was just checking to make sure everything was all right.”

It’s possible the real John McPhee learned to be a guide—for his readers—from the other John McPhee.

I ask him if he ever wants to return to these places he’s left behind, places he admits transformed him.

“When you’re spending two and a half, three years with Alaskan people and going up there for four months,” McPhee says, his voice cracking then trailing off. “Well, you miss the place when you’ve finished. This is the hardest thing in the kind of work I do. I get all caught up with the people and everything else, and then when it’s over, it’s over and I do miss those worlds that I was in before….That just goes with the territory.”

*

What else goes with the territory is the territory itself. McPhee’s oeuvre is animated by people yoked to or interacting with a landscape, one usually in some kind of flux, and often on the rim of “civilization.” Alaska was barely twenty years into statehood when he wrote Coming into the Country, his book about his travels there. “The environmental movement was just getting going and I thought that would be a good idea,” he says about Encounters with the Archdruid, which profiles arch-environmentalist, David Brower.

Not long afterwards, McPhee also wrote, “Farewell to the Nineteenth Century,” which examined the demolition of the Edwards Dam in Augusta, Maine at a time when the usefulness of dams and the legacy of industry was being weighed against harms to the environment.  America then was heaving with a keener awareness of itself and of evolving landscapes and values. This all came under McPhee’s watch, and he couldn’t have missed it unless he had been buried under all the lava in Iceland.

“I’m not sitting down to write about the environment,” McPhee says when I mention how prescient these stories were. “I try not to write with a bias, but it’s impossible to hide one. If your bias is in favor of something like the environment, it’s going to show.”

*

If there’s one bias McPhee would admit to, it would be a predilection for his own environment: Princeton, New Jersey. He’s been a resident there for 80 out of 86 years and lived in his current house for 50 years. He attended Princeton University, where his father also worked, and currently teaches Creative Writing to sophomores at Princeton, the “fixed foot of a compass,” as he calls it.

When he decamps to Alaska, Maine, Switzerland, or fishes for pickerel in the same spot for 39 consecutive years with the same three people, home is always there, like Magnetic North. Because of this stability, that closed circuit, his routines, he and his writing are unencumbered by the winds of unpredictability.

When McPhee wrote about Bill Bradley, the basketball star turned politician, it was the closest he ever came to writing directly about himself. In that profile, he emphasized Bradley’s rootedness, his routine, and his relationship to his surroundings. In describing Bradley’s hook shot, McPhee could have been describing a sentence…or himself.

‘There are five parts to the hook shot,’ [Bradley] explains to anyone who asks. As he continues, he picks up a ball and stands about eighteen feet from a basket. ‘Crouch,’ he says, crouching, and goes on to demonstrate the other moves. ‘Turn your head to look for the basket, step, kick, follow through with your arms.’ Once, as he was explaining this to me, the ball curled around the rim and failed to go in.

‘What happened then?’ I asked him.

‘I didn’t kick high enough,’ he said.

*

Repetition, stability, routine, awareness; these are the fountainheads of excellence for McPhee’s prose.

McPhee uses the same kind of self-imposed constraint in crafting a story’s structure. Structure, he writes, “has preoccupied me in every project I have undertaken” and it is the very thing that gives rise to his masterful stories, simple on the surface, with prudent mechanizations churning underneath. He doesn’t impose structure on his writing, but rather lets the story dictate it. Sometimes that process can take weeks of lying on a picnic table staring up into the sky, as he writes in Draft No. 4. Once the structure emerges, an act he writes is “seldom” simple, it should be “as about as visible as someone’s bones.”

What is simple is McPhee’s summary of determining structure: “A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there. You do that by building what you hope is an unarguable structure. Beginning, middle, end. Artistotle, Page 1,” he writes.

What would the structure of John McPhee’s life look like? After a laugh he says, “I have no idea. I don’t know how I would lay that out in my own life because it’s not interesting enough.”

Later, after we finish talking, I try to piece it out, mainly through his work, by sketching a rough chart that looks suspiciously like the genograms he uses in Heirs of General Practice or like what he describes in the chapter, “Progressions” in Draft No. 4: “…new pieces can shoot up from other pieces, pursuing connections that run through the ground like rhizomes. Set one of these progressions in motion and it will skein out in surprising ways, finally ending in some unexpected place.”

I followed the path of least resistance, as nature—or rhizomes—usually do, and begin diagramming topics and ideas, and the places and people of his texts. While the first two books, A Sense of Where You Are (1965) and The Headmaster (1966), were related to his formative years at Princeton and Deerfield Academy, the next book he wrote was Oranges (1967). Oranges?

Oranges have seeds, and when planted they grow into trees that beget oranges, which when peeled back, reveal seeds. Oranges, I thought, seemed to be about the writing process itself and a metaphor for the kind of recursive texts McPhee deploys. The more I mapped his work, the more I saw how each narrative built upon another, tethering them loosely. Oranges were just one of the shoots that landed in some “unexpected place” and it just happened to be Florida.

And so it turns, every text emerged somehow from ground zero: Princeton. From there “boyhood…canoe trips and the camp in Vermont, which developed into interests and that turned into pieces of writing,” he says. In The Headmaster we encounter a brief reference to a farm in New England, which could have led him to farms in Florida and the orange baron, Ben Hill Griffin. The landscape of Florida inspired perhaps a geological history of North America that won him his Pulitzer. It got so complex my chart started to look like the branches of a Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick tree with bittersweet vining through its catkins. In “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” an examination of the disintegrating California landscapes, I found geology, nature, dams, water, and “New England villages under deep snow.” And we are almost back to ground zero.

In those tributaries of his mind and of his texts, he distills things to their essence but simultaneously expands them to include the entire universe’s knowledge of that small, simple thing. Then he connects that small, simple thing to a complicated world. Oranges. It was as if his two preceding books were springboards, from which he bounced all the way to Florida, into the tenuous and patient nature of nature itself. The structure of John McPhee’s life is perhaps about structure itself. Or vice-versa.

*

Before we hung up, I couldn’t resist the urge to ask the world’s finest practitioner of narrative nonfiction for a little advice. How am I going to end the story about John McPhee? And then he gave me the advice without realizing it.

We had been speaking for well over an hour. As the mid-morning commotion of my neighbor’s weed whacker wound up, our conversation began to wind down. McPhee was voicing his concerns about teaching next year: “I have a big problem with this book [Draft No. 4], because in the spring seminar for 2018, I go in this class, and I’m going to give each kid a copy of the book. Now the whole class has the book. What do I do next?”

That question, “What do you do next?” is something McPhee asks himself and his students all the time. And sometimes the answer is to write what he calls a “set piece.”

“It’s a situation that you get into in a piece of writing where you want to concentrate on something that’s relevant but not mainstream,” he says. “Let me give you one example that I hope can serve for any of them. Suppose you’re writing about a canoe trip in Maine, and you go down the Penobscot River into the Allagash Lake and everything. That’s the story of The Survival of the Bark Canoe. In a lake on the first night, the first camping night, the first overnight or whatever, a loon is cruising around on the lake. This loon is the absolute symbol of the North Woods, and you want to stop and describe not just this loon swimming around, but talk about loons and the myths about them, the things you happen to know, or have looked up in the Firestone Library before you went up there, or months or years before, because you were interested. At any rate, you know a lot about loons, and you want to stop and talk about loons, and the narrative of the overall journey is interrupted by this discussion of loons. OK, that’s the set piece. The set piece on loons.”

Sounds easy but it’s not. Interrupting the narrative thrust feels almost like pedaling a bike with one flat tire. McPhee read my mind: “Your problem is how do you get into the story smoothly. That’s easy, you’re just describing you’ve come to this lake, you’re camping on it, you’re looking at the loon. That’s a cinch. How do you get back out and keep the narrative going so that the two sides of the set piece are very smooth in their welding to the main narrative? It’s very easy. If you set out to write a set piece and shift your tone, the texture of it, and you turn from a narrator of a trip somewhere into the Encyclopedia Americana, that’s terrible.”

After talking to John McPhee, I walk into my back yard and lie in the hammock under the crab apple tree, its leaves falling around me and bees swimming in the damp, autumn air. I look up into the sky, as McPhee once did, and wait for inspiration for my own writing. McPhee said I must transition between the world I “move around in all day long” and go “across that membrane and into writing” every day. But right now, all I see are the branches that need to be trimmed and bees that have nowhere to go. So I just keep staring up until I meet myself coming the other way and wishing I were John McPhee.

Featured photo by Peter Cook.

The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.


  • You’ve captured McPhee quite well in this profile. He *is* in every line he ever wrote; it’s just that he’s nearly invisible, and we have to look for him at odd angles, as we might look at an anamorphic painting of Holbein’s, if we are to see him. Like looking at “The Ambassadors,” it’s just as much a shock to see McPhee standing there placidly, looking back at us, as it is to notice that death’s head in Holbein.



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