-John McPhee, "Draft No. 4," The New Yorker, April 29. 2013
I stumbled on the works of John McPhee years ago while reading The New Yorker. Over the years, his writing made me care about topics I had barely considered: geology, New Jersey's pine barrens, long-distance trucking, oranges. Lately he has been writing about writing, which I already care about. That's why I want to read all of "Draft No. 4" out loud to anyone who will listen.
Instead, I'll share just a few of his comments. For more, get your own copy of The New Yorker.
On writer's block: You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that's where you've been getting. What do you do? You write, "Dear Mother." And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the "Dear Mother" and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.
On revision: The difference between a common writer and an improviser on a stage (or any performing artist) is that writing can be revised. Actually, the essence of the process is revision. The adulating portrait of the perfect writer who never blots a line comes express mail from fairyland.
Best description ever of a copy editor: Copy editors attend the flow of the prose and watch for leaks.
Oh, there's more, there's more. But get your own copy. Mine's already highlighted and scribbled on, awaiting my next bout of "my own inability to get going until five in the afternoon, my animal sense of being hunted, my resemblance to the sand of Gibraltar."