Everything I know about good writing I learned in Portage, Wisconsin in 1981. I was a cub reporter for the local daily paper. On the way back to the office from our standard mid-day fare of beer-boiled brats and string cheese, my friend, Patrick, also a cub reporter and the more talented writer, and I paused at a sidewalk book sale. Patrick handed me Giving Good Weight by one John McPhee.
“Who is John McPhee?” I asked, having recently achieved graduation based upon the in-vogue works of Tom Wolfe; Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, and every byline in Rolling Stone. Exciting, visceral even, the “new journalism” of the time. Alas, of little practical use to a rookie journalist trying to learn the craft and develop a style.
Patrick replied, without surprise, exasperation, or judgment I might add, that McPhee was a staff writer for The New Yorker. I brought the book home based on the recommendation alone, as I had never read this New Yorker. And who knew the names of staff writers, for Pete’s sake? My friend did.
My McPhee collection has since grown: Coming into the Country, Pieces of the Frame, Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plans, The Control of Nature, Encounters with the Archdruid, The Pine Barrens, The Crofter and the Laird, Looking for a Ship, Irons in the Fire, A Sense of Where You Are, The Curve of Binding Energy, Oranges, The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed.
Why is it I cannot put down an 80,000-word story about a merchant marine waiting for his next ship? Or a story about a bunch of pine trees in New Jersey? How did McPhee hold my attention rapt? How did he get from here to there? Why did this section flow from the previous and unrelated section without a proper transition? How did he remember so much detail when it is obvious he could not at the time have been keeping notes because of, say, the fierce downpour out there in the open canoe in northern Maine?
Annotated, underlined, checked, apostrophed, bracketed, circled, highlighted, arrowed. Mined for enlightenment. Deconstructed to expose the construct. Entire pages digested word-by-word through my typewriter, the scribe as hunter devouring first his fallen prey’s heart that the power would be absorbed. The life pulse gained.
We learn by doing. Yes, writing – letters, journals, notes – is how we become writers. We cannot forget, however, that we learned first by watching. Watching grown-ups walk, watching mom and dad handle the knife and fork, watching siblings climb the steps into the bus, watching the teacher write on the chalkboard. It is the same with writing. Reading is watching.
Watching with a sharp and analytical eye. Watching the best. Like McPhee, the Pulitzer Prize winner, writing teacher at Princeton. And now, after 20 years of observation, he allows a gleam of elucidation: the June 10 issue of The New Yorker, writing about shad fishing, McPhee quotes directly from his “fishing diaries.” He keeps a fishing diary! Aha! It is the second piece of his on shad fishing I have been snared by in as many years though I care not a wit for fishing. He cites diary entries in this piece:, May 7, May 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, May 22, 23, 25, May 31, June 10.
This McPhee takes notes though neither researching nor interviewing. He writes about his day. About fishing! Well, that’s another question answered: he need recall details until that evening’s diary session only. I’ll learn more as I read.
Damien Roohr has been a journalist and corporate marketing communications director, and is now an independent consultant and freelance writer. His byline has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Hartford Courant, and Sky & Telescope magazine. He can be reached at: droohr at attbi.com