John McPhee

John McPhee

John McPhee, a master of nonfiction storytelling, became a teacher by accident. In 1974, when he was a fast-rising star at The New Yorker, his alma mater, Princeton University, needed a last-minute replacement for its “Literature of Fact” course (now called “Creative Nonfiction”). He has taught it every spring semester since, when he takes a break from his own writing.

In journalism circles, the course is legendary. Alumni include some of today’s best-known writers: David Remnick (now McPhee’s boss as the editor of The New Yorker), Eric Schlosser (author of “Fast Food Nation”), Jennifer Weiner (author of the bestselling novel “In Her Shoes”), and more. The list also includes hundreds of not-at-all famous writers, like me. I’m a senior editor at EdSurge, a startup media company you’ve probably never heard of (but should check out). Previously, I spent 20 years at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Journalism has provided me with a rewarding career and incredible opportunities – I once interviewed Steve Jobs –  but hardly fame or riches. Still, I feel lucky.

Over the years, I’ve had great editors and mentors, but McPhee’s course was one of my first and most lasting influences. In the more than 20 years since I sat around the table in his wood-paneled classroom as a baby-faced, out-of-place, middle-class kid from southeast Georgia, I’ve wondered many times: What’s his magic? He taught me how to write, I thought. But how?

In McPhee’s latest book, “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process,” he essentially lays out his Princeton course. Its publication seemed the perfect time to ask him about his craft as a teacher. I gave him a call. To my happy surprise, he called back.

We talked about the most memorable part of his course: He reads each student paper as if it were slated to run in The New Yorker and is just in need of a New Yorker-style edit. In my case, that meant so many red marks that my draft looked like a small animal that had been murdered. For each assignment, McPhee would meet with us one-on-one to go over the bloody draft. I remember him plucking one weak verb out of a 3,000-word piece and walking me to a nearby dictionary on a stand near his desk. We looked it up. And even after his point was made, he continued to hunt for even better words.

… those meetings showed the power of language, and the importance of choosing just what to say and what to leave out.

To me, those meetings showed the power of language, and the importance of choosing just what to say and what to leave out. But McPhee downplayed his impact, comparing it to a job he held in his youth as a water-safety instructor at a camp in Vermont. All of his students could swim, he says. “So what did I teach them? I taught them how to move through the water a little more smoothly and efficiently.” That’s what he does as a writing teacher, he says—he helps students refine their work. “I don’t create the writer. At all.”

As we talked, I began to better understand his philosophy. McPhee isn’t trying to teach, at least not by conventional terms. And that’s what makes him so effective.

He bristled, for instance, when I described his course as a “writing workshop.” Students meet weekly and he talks through the writing process with them as a group, but students don’t discuss each other’s writing at all, he reminded me. Instead, McPhee looks forward to the one-on-one conferences, where he can be an editor. “I tell them this: I’m going to look over your shoulder at your work,” he says. “And you look over my shoulder at mine. They read pieces of mine and they ask me questions in the way that I’m asking them questions.” And he isn’t just out to train future writers” “If somebody is pre-med or if somebody is an engineer and going to go off and build a bridge to somewhere, that’s fine. I’m not looking for just people who are interested in working for a newspaper or NPR.”

“I’m going to looking over your shoulder at your work. And you look over my shoulder at mine.” ~ John McPhee as a teacher

In classroom sessions, McPhee shares how he has put together some of his best-known writing. Why did he begin a section of “Coming into the Country” in the middle of an Alaskan canoe trip? So that in the final paragraphs, he could loop back around to the moments just preceding it. Structure is his obsession, as is clear in his new book as well. “Readers are not supposed to notice the structure,” he writes. “It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.”

For that wisdom, he credits his high school English teacher, Olive McKee. Each week, Ms. McKee assigned three pieces of writing, he remembers. And each piece of writing had to be accompanied by a structural outline. “And that’s exactly what I do in my Princeton course and have done since year one in that course,” he says. McKee didn’t teach McPhee how to structure his writing, he says. She just showed him that structure was a promising place to focus his energies.

If teaching great writing were possible, McPhee himself might sign up for the course. Despite his prodigious output, he’s the last to say he has it all figured out.

He starts his day at 9 a.m., he told me. He fiddles with his notes, turns his ideas over, makes excuses. Then he steps out for a bike ride. When he returns to his office, his anxiety picks up a bit. “I know exactly what I want to write,” he says, “but something in me is just blocked.” Around 5 p.m., panic sets in. He gets a few paragraphs on paper and goes home. “And then people say, ‘What a prolific writer you are.’ And that’s pretty funny to me,” he says.

He couldn’t show me how to write exactly. But he dared me to try.

He’s been singing this song for years—the idea that writing is always hard, no matter where you’re published, how much money you’ve made, how many accolades you’ve received. The best we can do is get a few paragraphs down on paper, and then a few more, and then, when there are enough, rework them again, and again, and again.

When I heard that as a college sophomore, it sounded raw and vulnerable – not the tone I was accustomed to hearing from my professors. But if the job of a teacher is to prepare his students, McPhee succeeded. He showed me up close the often agonizing, sometimes amazing life of a writer. He couldn’t show me how to write exactly, but he dared me to try.

The full interview with John McPhee can be found on the EdSurge On Air Podcast

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