Here's some bits of the interview that touch on the craft of writing:
“In writing Encounters with the Archdruid, [nominated for a National Book Award in Science - ed] I tried to present each narrative in all its complexity, while pulling back from the sort of authorial judgment that would weaken, I thought, the book’s effect. I wanted opinion to derive from the eye of the beholder. I did not want to write an environmental sermon. That would be there in the words of David Brower. Meanwhile, I wanted the gray, in all shades, to be present. And I hoped that readers would enter the scenes, think about them, and come to their own conclusions.”I find this also to be good advice in fiction writing. Let the reader draw his or her own conclusions. Leave the gray areas there.
"I had a teacher in Princeton High School, Mrs. McKee, who had us write three pieces of writing a week. She had us get up and read them to the other kids, who would wad up paper and throw it at us when we were doing our reading. We had a lot of fun in that class. We could write anything, fiction, non-fiction, poetry. Whatever it was, the structure had to be defended. You had to turn in, with each piece, a structural presentation, an outline, or a doodle of some sort that showed that you were thinking about the anatomy of the piece when you were writing it. And so, every single Princeton kid that I’ve ever taught has turned in every piece with a structural outline."That's good advice, too. Think about the anatomy of what you're writing. Here's some more on structure, in a more practical how-to sense:
John McPhee writes on all kinds of subjects, about all kinds of different people. His latest book is about a basketball player, A Sense of Where You Are. The interviewer asked him, "I can’t figure it out. What is your genre? Are you a nature writer? Are you a sports writer? Are you an allegory and parable writer?" His response:Audience question: I’m wondering if you enjoy the process of reporting or researching more than the actual writing. Is there a conflict there? Also, I was told at one point that you would put the whole book on a series of 3-by-5 cards and organize it that way. Is that accurate, and if so do you still do that?
McPhee: Yes. It’s the whole book in the sense that I’ve reduced the notes to little things like airport codes. It means something to me and they relate to components of the story. On the 3-by-5 card there’s nothing more than one word, or half a word, but I know what it relates to. It relates to a whole body of stuff. Then I move the cards around to see where I’m going to find a good structure, a legitimate structure.
"I’m a writer, and I’ve been described as all those things — a nature writer, a sports writer, an agricultural writer. What my work has in common is that it’s about real people in real places. I look for real people who are interesting that I can describe, and the places where they live and work, and so forth, and try to do a sketch of that. It’s led me into all kinds of different areas, but absolutely all of it has that in common. I had to label my course when I started teaching, and so it’s called creative non-fiction. What’s creative about non-fiction? Well, you can make a list of the things that, within the legitimacy of fact, you can do: You can arrange the structure, you can do flashbacks, you can do things that I feel are legitimate in factual writing. That’s what I try to get across to the students."I particularly like this because I tend to write all over the map, too. People want you to pick a category and stick with it. There's no reason at all to do that, and the master has just said so himself. So there.
And now, for the crowning glory, the part where he talks about the actual work of writing. This resonated so strongly with me, I just had to share it on the blog. Enjoy.
"Writing is a suspension of life. I believe that so-called writer’s block is something that any writer is going to experience every day, but in a minor way. You break through some kind of membrane, and then you go into another world. Time really goes fast in there, but it is hard as can be to get there, and it frightens me. It frightens Joan Didion. She talks about the “low dread” she feels looking across the room at the door of her study. When she’s sitting somewhere, not writing, and she looks and sees that door, she experiences the low dread. Oh boy, do I know what that means. Getting past it is just a daily thing."
"Using a semicolon isn't hard; I once saw a party gorilla do it."
Maybe we should all come up with some Lakelines examples? I'll start first; it was, after all, my idea.
"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. ..."It culminates in a list of six very good rules to follow when writing. I wish he would have applied his own rules to that first sentence...
Which brings me to another blogger, Seth Godin, who writes a lot about business and entrepreneurship. He re-wrote Orwell's rules, editing them according to the rules themselves. Take a look and tell me it's not brilliant!!
Here's another great roundup of new publishing venues from the blog brainpickings. Perhaps we should venture into this new form? Who will take the leap first? Interactive publishing on Redlemonade, anyone?
There is a redundant letter in my name and it is starting to piss me off. I am referring to the first 't' in Matthew, the silent one that resembles a lizard dangling from a wire.
My mother decided on it when I was born and become its greatest defender. 'It's two t's not one. Like in the bible,' she would parrot, elevating the sin of omission into an affront against God. She is a short women, my mother, and it was easy to fill her with indignation. If I learnt one thing from her it was to remain vigilant against acts of orthographical kidnap.
My reading on the subject only reinforced my prejudice. I remember as a child reading a book entitled, 'What Your Name Means'. The entry for Matthew got half a page. It read like the school report for the class swot, filled with words like, 'noble' and 'steadfast.' I compared it against entries for other, clearly inferior names. Their entries were all shorter and sparing on the praise. The meaning of 'Mat' stays with me to this day. It read, 'People called Mat will be walked on'.
Matthew; here was a name to be lived up to. I appreciated the Alpine muscularity of its profile, it's sense of gravitas. In my mind, it was not possible to be both a Matthew and someone's carpet.
And then the other day I realised the flaw in my thinking. I have been teaching my daughter to read and as a result have become conscious of the inconsistencies in English spelling. I was walking past a Silhouette gym and sounded out the syllables in my head.
'What's that 'h' doing?' I asked myself. 'Surely it should be written 'Sil-low-ette' to sound the double L. Just like Matthew' I thought smugly, 'With the double T to...'.
And then it struck me. Those years of standing on tiptoes to better scrutinise the writing of some unfortunate clerk came crashing down on my head. Say it. Say, 'Mat-thew' and try and sound the double Ts. It sounds like the hiccups or that your wine's gone down the wrong way.
Those Ts are not children holding hands – tt – they don't spell pi - TT. I have a sedentary t, a fat man sitting on a sofa in the middle of my name. It's like waking up with a double chin or an extra layer of fat around the midriff. It made me take a step back, I can tell you.
I carried this revelation around with me for some time while I decided what to do. In the end I have decided to embrace it. It is my novel-t, my peculiari-t, my very own proper-t. The 'tt' are the crutches my name sits on, the scaffolding holding the whole crazy structure together.