John McPhee’s great subject has always been work. From his first book, “A Sense of Where You Are,” which came out in 1965 and portrays basketball star and Rhodes Scholar Bill Bradley, to “Uncommon Carriers” (2006), with its truckers and its tugboat captains, he has long been obsessive about how people do their jobs. Here he is, for example, on geologists, from the magnificent “Annals of the Former World”: “Geologists are inconsistent drivers. When a roadcut presents itself, they tend to lurch and weave. For them, the roadcut is a portal, a fragment of a regional story, a proscenium arch that leads their imaginations into the earth and through the surrounding terrane.”
What McPhee is suggesting is that structure is at once subjective and essential, that it is the basic building block, yes, but that we must approach it fresh each time.
The not-so-secret secret is that McPhee is also describing himself. We can think of his work as an excavation that begins with an idea or question — an itch, let’s call it, that won’t leave him alone. Sometimes this is a matter of content and sometimes of structure, but either way, it starts the process, the deep dive for which he is known. A McPhee piece is instantly recognizable: There are the physical details, the sense of scene and setting, the voice (wry, at once close and distanced), and then, of course, those characters. As he notes in his latest book, “Draft No. 4,” which gathers eight essays on craft that first appeared in The New Yorker, “A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.” McPhee is happy to elaborate. “A piece of writing,” he insists, “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. Aristotle, Page 1.”
McPhee is correct, as anyone who has ever tried to write can attest, although that’s not what makes “Draft No. 4” so good. Rather, it is his willingness to self-investigate, to reveal not only his trade secrets (the book features meditations on editors, fact-checking, context, what to leave out), but also his identity as a tradesperson, the man behind the curtain, as it were. All writers are ambitious — McPhee, who has published more than 30 books over the last half-century, as much as anyone. Few, however, have sought to enumerate their ambition with such wit and sensitivity.
Perhaps this is because McPhee is a teacher as well, and has the teacher’s desire (and, even more important, ability) to explain. His discussion of structure is particularly enlightening because he has, throughout his career, used structure as a vehicle for ambition, pushing himself beyond the expected and into a territory that shifts, that changes, with every piece of work. Early in “Draft No. 4,” which comes billed as “a master class in the writer’s craft,” he recalls his desire to step outside the conventions of magazine writing, especially the profile. “At Time,” he writes, “I did countless sketches, long and short, of show-business people (Richard Burton, Sophia Loren, Barbra Streisand, et al.), and at The New Yorker even longer pieces, on an athlete, a headmaster, an art historian, an expert on wild food. After ten years of that, I was a little desperate to escalate, or at least get out of a groove that might turn into a rut.” (p. 5)
The solution, McPhee continues, was to think bigger, or more broadly, or in a more connective sense. What, he began to wonder, about a double profile, involving two figures who are connected but at the same time distinct? “In the resonance between the two sides, added dimension might develop. Maybe I would twice meet myself coming the other way. Or four times. Who could tell what might happen? In any case, one plus one should add up to more than two.” (p. 6) The result was “Levels of the Game,” built around a semifinal tennis match at the 1968 U.S. Open between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, and in many ways the prototypic McPhee piece. Start with an event, with the situation of it, then peel back the layers one by one. It’s a strategy to which he returns again and again in his writing, using individuals, their lives and work and personalities to ask more universal questions about who and where we are. I think again of the Pulitzer-winning “Annals of the Former World,” which gathers and expands on four previous books (“Basin and Range,” “In Suspect Terrain,” “Rising from the Plains” and “Assembling California”) to frame the geologic history of North America through the experiences of several geologists — the double profile gone as exponential as a Mandelbrot set.
“A piece of writing,” he insists, “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.”
What McPhee is suggesting is that structure is at once subjective and essential, that it is the basic building block, yes, but that we must approach it fresh each time. This is the case even if, unlike McPhee, you are inclined to let the structure develop through the act of writing, if you don’t know where you are going when you begin. All writers approach their projects differently — this is one of the lessons of “Draft No. 4.” Every one of us, however, shares the desire to tell a story according to what it offers and what it requires. Late in the book, McPhee brings up greening, which is what Time once called the art of trimming a piece to available space. (The cuts were made in green ink.) After edits were complete, he recalls, writers would receive proofs “with notes on them that said ‘Green 5’ or ‘Green 8’ or ‘Green 15’ or some such, telling you to condense the text by that number of lines or the piece would not fit in the magazine.”
Over the years, McPhee has adapted greening as a classroom technique to teach a basic truth: that structure is not only a matter of overview but also operates at the level of sentences and words. “Green 4 does not mean lop off four lines at the bottom,” he tells his students. “The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed.” In the end, it’s a pretty good metaphor — for structure, and for McPhee’s oeuvre. The idea is that the shaping of a piece of writing ought to be not only inevitable but also, in a necessary sense, invisible, that it move the narrative without drawing unnecessary attention to itself. We don’t, in other words, need (or want) the reader to see how clever, how constructed, is the work. That “Draft No. 4” violates this even while enforcing it is part of the idiosyncratic nature of the project: writing about writing, structure about structure, language about language. It is a craft book, sure, but even more it is about work. Or, in other words, a book by John McPhee.