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Jan 9, 2014 10:12pm

john mcphee on structure

John McPhee’s Structure made a big impression on me when I read it last year, so I’m happy to see it out from behind the New Yorker paywall. It’s a longform investigation of thought process and order and tools and approach to writing, and I’ve nicked some of the scissors & paper ideas for my own organization.

On crisis:

The picnic-table crisis came along toward the end of my second year as a New Yorker staff writer (a euphemistic term that means unsalaried freelance close to the magazine). In some twenty months, I had submitted half a dozen pieces, short and long, and the editor, William Shawn, had bought them all. You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed. At last it occurred to me that Fred Brown, a seventy-nine-year-old Pine Barrens native, who lived in a shanty in the heart of the forest, had had some connection or other to at least three-quarters of those Pine Barrens topics whose miscellaneity was giving me writer’s block. I could introduce him as I first encountered him when I crossed his floorless vestibule—“Come in. Come in. Come on the hell in”—and then describe our many wanderings around the woods together, each theme coming up as something touched upon it. After what turned out to be about thirty thousand words, the rest could take care of itself. Obvious as it had not seemed, this organizing principle gave me a sense of a nearly complete structure, and I got off the table.

On order:

When I was through studying, separating, defining, and coding the whole body of notes, I had thirty-six three-by-five cards, each with two or three code words representing a component of the story. All I had to do was put them in order. What order? An essential part of my office furniture in those years was a standard sheet of plywood—thirty-two square feet—on two sawhorses. I strewed the cards face up on the plywood. The anchored segments would be easy to arrange, but the free-floating ones would make the piece. I didn’t stare at those cards for two weeks, but I kept an eye on them all afternoon. Finally, I found myself looking back and forth between two cards. One said “Alpinist.” The other said “Upset Rapid.” “Alpinist” could go anywhere. “Upset Rapid” had to be where it belonged in the journey on the river. I put the two cards side by side, “Upset Rapid” to the left. Gradually, the thirty-four other cards assembled around them until what had been strewn all over the plywood was now in neat rows. Nothing in that arrangement changed across the many months of writing.

On attention:

So I always rolled the platen and left blank space after each item to accommodate the scissors that were fundamental to my advanced methodology. After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size. If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders. One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood. If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

On software:

He listened to the whole process from pocket notebooks to coded slices of paper, then mentioned a text editor called Kedit, citing its exceptional capabilities in sorting. Kedit (pronounced “kay-edit”), a product of the Mansfield Software Group, is the only text editor I have ever used. I have never used a word processor. Kedit did not paginate, italicize, approve of spelling, or screw around with headers, wysiwygs, thesauruses, dictionaries, footnotes, or Sanskrit fonts. Instead, Howard wrote programs to run with Kedit in imitation of the way I had gone about things for two and a half decades. … Howard thought the computer should be adapted to the individual and not the other way around. One size fits one. The programs he wrote for me were molded like clay to my requirements—an appealing approach to anything called an editor.

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