Archive for May, 2010

It is never stated, but by process of elimination I think it was Peter Hessler, staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing writer for National Geographic who interviewed John McPhee for the Paris Review. Throughout the interview, McPhee talks about his career, publishing more than thirty books, working at The New Yorker and teaching nonfiction at Princeton for the past thirty-five years. McPhee is known to be a private man who grants few interviews, but where we are lucky enough to have a glimpse into his life he comes across as a warm and thoughtful person. He talks about his writing process, so wonderfully described in Richard Gilbert’s NARRATIVE. This involves typing up his field notes, coding them into structural categories, transferring coded sections to index cards and writing from these cards, which he posts onto a bulletin board. I might try this next time!

Although I enjoyed reading about McPhee’s life, what I was most interested in were his ‘nuggets’ on writing. Once McPhee has typed up his notes he describes this body of information as ‘analogous to cooking a dinner. You go to the store and you buy a lot of things. You bring them home and you put them on the kitchen counter, and that’s what you’re going to make your dinner out of. If you’ve got a red pepper over here — it’s not a tomato. You’ve got to deal with what you’ve got. You don’t have an ideal collection of material every time out.’

When McPhee lays out his coded index cards on a table he looks for good juxtapositions. ‘If you’ve got good juxtapositions, you don’t have to worry about what I regard as idiotic things, like a composed transition. If your structure really makes sense, you can make some jumps and your reader is going to go right with you.’ This is one of the most exciting parts of writing for me. These creative breakthroughs.

At the end of the interview, Hessler asks: ‘But the writing itself hasn’t got any easier?’ McPhee acknowledges that experience helps, he says he still experiences what Joan Didion calls ‘low dread’. He says each day he has to go ‘through some kind of change from being a normal human being, into becoming some kind of slave.’ He finds it a constant struggle to get going. He says he goes hours before he’s able to write a word. He’ll make tea or sharpen pencils. Then around 4:30 he begins to panic and by around 5:00 he starts to write. For me, by around 11:00 in the morning, after I’ve checked every writer’s blog possible and caught up on world events, I think, the school bus is going to pull up in four hours, I still need to go grocery shopping and I haven’t written a thing. Then the words begin to flow. Eventually it adds up. As McPhee notes:

And the routine of doing this six days a week puts a little drop in a bucket each day, and that’s the key. Because if you put a drop in a bucket every day, after three hundred and sixty five days, the bucket’s going to have some water in it.

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Mother's Day

Backyard Bundle

Each year I’m so moved by my children’s excitement on Mother’s Day. Yesterday, as a pre-Mother’s Day gift they presented me with the ‘Backyard Bundle’, flowers they gathered during the sunny afternoon. This morning I lounged in bed while they prepared breakfast for me.

Corinne was my first visitor with a glass of orange juice. TJ came into the bedroom a few minutes later with an update, ‘We would have served you breakfast in bed, but we couldn’t get the pony up the stairs and we couldn’t move the cruise ship out of the pool. Dad came up with the pony. I came up with the cruise ship. I’ll come get you when we’re ready.’

The breakfast table was decorated with more gifts — a hanging strawberry plant (I’ve been telling Tim I’d like to plant a vegetable garden), an iron cart filled with geraniums and other flowers (I’m not very good at identification) and a gift certificate to the local bookstore. We had poached eggs AND french toast for breakfast. Ian the teenager appeared still sleepy, ‘Happy Mumsy’s Day’ he said using language left over from our time in Australia. Corinne’s handmade card reads:

Happy Mother’s Day!! I love you so much and I always will. I love how you care for me so much. Now, I should do something for you. I would never want anything bad to happen to you, Dad, Ian or TJ and I will always be there for you. God bless you for giving birth to Ian, TJ and me. I love you so much !!

With that kind of love I’m ready to mother for another year! Oh, and thanks Tim for your behind the scenes efforts.

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