Unreal Nature

November 3, 2017

One Self

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself.

This is from Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee (2017):

… Another mantra, which I still write in chalk on the blackboard is “A Thousand Details Add Up to One Impression.” It’s actually a quote from Cary Grant. Its implication is that few (if any) details are individually essential, while the details collectively are absolutely essential.

[ … ]

What to include, what to leave out. Those thoughts are with you from the start. While scribbling your notes in the field, you obviously leave out a great deal of what you’re looking at. Writing is selection, and the selection starts right there at Square 1. When I am making notes, I throw in a whole lot of things indiscriminately, much more than I’ll ever use, but even so I am selecting. Later, in the writing itself, things get down to the narrowed choices. It’s an utterly subjective situation. I include what interests me and exclude what doesn’t interest me.

[line break added] That may be a crude tool but it’s the only one I have. Broadly speaking, the word “interests” in this context has subdivisions of appeal, among them the ways in which the choices help to set the scene, the ways in which the choices suggest some undercurrent about the people or places being described, and, not least, the sheer sound of the words that bring forth the detail. It is of course possible to choose too much costume jewelry and diminish the description, the fact notwithstanding that, by definition in nonfiction writing, all the chosen items were of course observed.

… no two writers are the same, like snowflakes and fingerprints. No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip. Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing. An editor’s goal is to help writers make the most of the patterns that are unique about them.

There are people who superimpose their own patterns on the work of writers and seem to think it is their role to force things in the direction they would have gone in if they had been doing the writing. Such people are called editors, and are not editors bur rewriters. I couldn’t begin to guess the number of onetime students of mine who have sent me printed articles full of notes in the margins telling me what the original said. An editor I know (not professionally) tells me that he sees this topic from the other side and most writers need what they get. He will never convince this writer. My advice is, never stop battling for the survival of your own unique stamp.

[ … ]

… If I’m in someone’s presence and attempting to conduct an interview, I am wishing I were with Kafka on the ceiling. I’d much rather watch people do what they do than talk to them across a desk.

… Whatever you do, don’t rely on memory. Don’t even imagine that you will be able to remember verbatim in the evening what people said during the day. And don’t squirrel notes in a bathroom — that is, run off to the john and write surreptitiously what someone said back there with the cocktails. From the start, make clear what you are doing and who will publish what you write. Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license. While the interview continues, the notebook may serve other purposes, surpassing the talents of a voice recorder.

[line break added] As you scribble away, the interviewee is, of course, watching you. Now, unaccountably, you slow down, and even stop writing, while the interviewee goes on talking. The interviewee becomes nervous, tries harder, and spills out the secrets of a secret life, or maybe just a clearer and more quotable version of what was said before. Conversely, if the interviewee is saying nothing of interest, you can pretend to be writing, just to keep the enterprise moving forward.

If doing nothing can produce a useful reaction, so can the appearance of being dumb. You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit. Evidently, you need help. Who is there to help you but the person who is answering your questions? The result is the opposite of the total shutdown that might have occurred if you had come on glib and omniscient.

[line break added] If you don’t seem to get something, the subject will probably help you get it. If you are listening to speech and at the same time envisioning it in print, you can ask your question again, and again, until the repeated reply will be clear in print. Who is going to care if you seem dumber than a cardboard box?

My previous post from McPhee’s book is here.




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