Draft No. 4 by John McPhee
This is McPhee on writing, however what it feels like is McPhee using David Bowie's "songwriting" technique where he just strew his notecards across his plywood table and then cobbled them together, because that's what's he can do.
Howard thought the computer should be adapted to the individual and not the other way around. One size fits one.
How many extant authors are at the "straight to galley print" level?1
Quarter horses are much faster than Thoroughbreds, and a third of a minute after he opened the gate their quarter-mile races were over. A quarter horse had been clocked at fifty-five miles an hour, the world record for racehorses of any kind.
In my first three years at Princeton High School, in the late nineteen-forties, my English teacher was Olive McKee, whose self-chosen ratio of writing assignments to reading assignments seems extraordinary in retrospect and certainly differed from the syllabus of the guy who taught us in senior year. Mrs. McKee made us do three pieces of writing a week. Not every single week. Some weeks had Thanksgiving in them. But we wrote three pieces a week most weeks for three years. We could write anything we wanted to, but each composition had to be accompanied by a structural outline, which she told us to do first. It could be anything from Roman numerals I, II, III to a looping doodle with guiding arrows and stick figures. The idea was to build some form of blueprint before working it out in sentences and paragraphs. Mrs. McKee liked theatrics (she was also the schools drama coach), and she had us read our pieces in class to the other kids. She made no attempt to stop anybody from booing, hissing, or wadding paper and throwing it at the reader, all of which the kids did. In this crucible, I learned to duck while reading. I loved Mrs. McKee, and I loved that class.
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 plywoodfour by eight feeton two sawhorses. I strewed the cards face-up on the plywood.
Preston put me in touch with Howard J. Strauss, in Princetons Office of Information Technology. Howard had worked for NASA in Houston on the Apollo program and was now in Princeton guiding the innumerate. For a couple of decades, his contribution to my use of the computer in teaching, researching, and writing would be so extensive thatas I once wroteif he were ever to leave Princeton I would pack up and follow him, even to Australia. When I met him in 1984, the first thing he said to me was Tell me what you do.
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.
He wrote Structur. He wrote Alpha. He wrote mini-macros galore. Structur lacked an e because in those days in the Kedit directory eight letters was the maximum he could use in naming a file. In one form or another, some of these things have come along since, but this was 1984 and the future stopped there. Howard, who died in 2005, was the polar opposite of Bill Gatesin outlook as well as income. 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 requirementsan appealing approach to anything called an editor.
Structur exploded my notes. It read the codes by which each note was given a destination or destinations (including the dustbin). It created and named as many new Kedit files as there were codes, and, of course, it preserved intact the original set. In my first I.B.M. computer, Structur took about four minutes to sift and separate fifty thousand words. My first computer cost five thousand dollars. I called it a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.
I wrote my way sequentially from Kedit file to Kedit file from the beginning to the end of the piece. Some of those files created by Structur could be quite long. So each one in turn needed sorting on its own, and sometimes fell into largish parts that needed even more sorting. In such phases, Structur would have been counterproductive. It would have multiplied the number of named files, choked the directory, and sent the writer back to the picnic table, and perhaps under it. So Howard wrote Alpha. Alpha implodes the notes it works on. It doesnt create anything new. It reads codes and then churns a file internally, organizing it in segments in the order in which they are meant to contribute to the writing.
Alpha is the principal, workhorse program I run with Kedit. Used again and again on an ever-concentrating quantity of notes, it works like nesting utensils. It sorts the whole business at the outset, and then, as I go along, it sorts chapter material and subchapter material, and it not infrequently arranges the components of a single paragraph. It has completely served many pieces on its own. When I run it now, the action is instantaneous in a way that Iborn in 1931find breathtaking. Its like a light switch. I click on Run Alpha, and in zero seconds a window appears that says, for example,
Alpha has completed 14 codes and 1301 paragraph segments were processed. 7246 lines were read and 7914 lines were written to the sorted file.
One line is 11.7 words.
Kedits All command helps me find all the times I use any word or phrase in a given piece, and tells me how many lines separate each use from the next. Its sort of like a leaf blower. Mercilessly, it will go after fad words like hone, pivot, proactive, icon, iconic, issues, awesome, aura, arguably, and expressions like reach out, went viral, and take it to the next level. It suggests how much of but is too much but. But its principal targets are the legions of perfectly acceptable words that should not appear more than once in a piece of writinglegions, in the numerical sense, among them, and words like expunges, circumvallate, horripilation, disjunct, defunct, amalgamate, ameliorate, defecate, and a few thousand others. Of those that show up more than once, All expunges all.
Kedit did not catch on in a large way at Princeton. I used to know other Kedit users -- a historian of science, a Jefferson scholar. Aware of this common software, we nodded conspiratorially. Today on the campus, the number of people using Kedit is roughly one. Not long ago, I asked Jay Barnes, an information technologist at Princeton, if he thought I was enfolded in a digital time warp. Right; yes, he said. But you found it and it works, and you havent switched it because of fashion. Or, as Tracy Kidder wrote in 1981, in The Soul of a New Machine, Software that works is precious. Users dont idly discard it.
The river was the Illinoisbarge route from the Mississippi to the outskirts of Chicago. At Grafton, in southern Illinois, the Billy Joe Boling collected its fifteen barges from larger tows in the Mississippi, wired them taut as an integral vessel, and went up the Illinois until constricting dimensions of the river forced another exchange, with a smaller towboat, and the Billy Joe Boling took a new rig of fifteen barges downstream. This endless yo-yo was not exactly a journey in the Amundsen sense. There was no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.
Blaiks signature talent was using all this data to create something clean and simple. He had what Lombardi called the great knack of knowing what offensive plan to use against what defense and then discarding the immaterial and going with the strength. All the detailed preparations resulted not in a mass of confusing statistics and plans, but in the opposite, paring away the extraneous, reducing and refining until all that was left was what was needed for that game against that team. It was a lesson Lombardi never forgot.
The soldiers had a two-way radio with which to receive orders, be given information, or report intelligence to the command post. They stirred their fondue with its antenna. They sent coded messages to the command post: A PEASANT IN OBERWALD HAS SEEN FOUR ARMORED CARS COMING OUT OF ST. NIKLAUS AND HEADING FOR THE VALLEY. More fondue, then this: TWO COMPANIES OF ENEMY MOTORIZED FUSILIERS HAVE REACHED RARON. ABOUT FIFTEEN ARMORED VEHICLES HAVE BEEN DESTROYED. And later this: AN ATOMIC BOMB OF PETITE SIZE HAS BEEN DROPPED ON SIERRE. OUR BARRICADES AT VISP STILL HOLD. THE BRIDGES OF GRENGIOLS ARE SECURE. WE ARE IN CONTACT WITH THE ENEMY.
Setting down a pencil and returning to the fondue, I said to myself, There is my ending. Like the failed engines on the ocean, the petite A-bomb was a gift to structure. Ending pieces is difficult, and usable endings are difficult to come by. Its nice when they just appear in appropriate places and times.
After the tow rig ran aground, the river pilot Mel Adams said, When you write all this down, my name is Tom Armstrong.
I always know where I intend to end before I have much begun to write. William Shawn once told me that my pieces were a little strange because they seemed to have three or four endings.
In the family of recoiling words included in The New Yorker for the first time, motherfucker had yet to be born. Fuck was alive but barely. John Cheever had agreed to delete it from a story published in the nineteen-fifties, in a tradition of compliance that extended to and beyond Alice Munro in 1980. During all that time, the editor of The New Yorker was William Shawn, who pluralized himself in the quiet expression not for us. If he thought a euphemism was possible, Shawn would ask for one.
Writing a humor piece in the nineteen-sixties, Calvin Trillin imagined a maternity-dress shop called Mother Jumpers.
Oh, no, not for us.
As Trillin has recounted in public and in print, he mentioned to Mr. Shawn that Mother Jumpers was itself a euphemism.
Yes, well, not for us.
Sara Lippincott, in a short piece written in the nineteen-seventies, tried a variant of Use it or lose it, the Cialis of its time. Shouting from her bicycle at a New York bus driver, she said, Move it or lose it! Even that left Mr. Shawn blushed out. In his magazine, he was having none of it. Why? she asked him. Actually, she had no idea whence the expression derived. Shawn dodged her question. She asked again. He reddened and wouldnt tell her.
Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogativethat they can buy a piece, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New YorkerVogue, Holiday, The Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title. Editors habit of replacing an authors title with one of their own is like a photo of a tourists head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong. But the title missing on the Bill Bradley piece was my oversight. I put no title on the manuscript. Shawn did. He hunted around in the text and found six words spoken by the subject, and when I saw the first New Yorker proof the piece was called A Sense of Where You Are.
After all those one-on-one sessions discussing back-door plays and the role of the left-handed comma in the architectonics of basketballwhile The New Yorker magazine hurtled toward its deadlinesI finally said in wonderment, How can you afford to use so much time and go into so many things in such detail with just one writer when this whole enterprise is yours to keep together?
He said, It takes as long as it takes.
As a writing teacher, I have repeated that statement to two generations of students. If they are writers, they will never forget it.
The interviews with Jackie Gleason were not recorded. With my basic technology -- a pencil and a lined four-by-six notebook -- I could keep up. He spoke at a clear and thoughtful pace. Besides, like most people, he was not invariably interesting. Writing is selection. When you are making notes you are forever selecting. I left out more than I put down.
It is journalistic customessentially a rulethat you dont show a manuscript to the subject. In many situations, ego is too likely to spoil the transaction, not to mention a subjects attempts to massage the text. But science, for me, is the exception that probes the rule. I have never published anything on a science that has not been vetted by the scientists involved. Robert Hargraves read about the maar-diatreme volcano and said I had it half right. A couple of days later, I returned to him with a fresh version, which he said was three-quarters right. A few days after that, I asked him to look again. This time, he said, I dont see anything wrong here. I felt as if he had awarded me a Ph.D., the D, perhaps, for the synonym for subpar intelligence.
In a question-and-answer piece in The New York Times Book Review for January 16, 1966, George Plimpton quoted Truman Capote claiming that he had trained himself to recall dialogue with such accuracy that he could interview people without a notebook or tape recorder, and then, hours later, write down verbatim what was said, his accuracy exceeding ninety per cent.
In 1991, when James Atlas was an editor at The New York Times Magazine, he wrote an article aboutamong other thingsquotation marks and what is inside them. How much is quoter, how much quotee? By way of example, Atlas quotes Boswell quoting Johnson at a dinner party. Johnson, between bites: It is so far from being natural for a man and woman to live in a state of marriage that we find all the motives which they have for remaining in that connection and the restraints which civilized society imposes to prevent separation are hardly sufficient to keep them together. Atlas: Thats quite a mouthful, even for a speaker with Johnsons verbal gifts. In fairness to Boswell, Atlas went on to say, Boswell was an assiduous note-taker; he would scribble a few lines, abridging wordshis portable soup, he called it: a hint, such as this, brings to my mind all that passed, though it would be barren to anybody but myself. Anybody but Truman Capote, !
apparently, who didnt even need a soupspoon.
The other minder was provided in Omaha in 1995 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Through the agencys Materials Analysis Unit, about half of whose work is in geology, I had arranged to interview Special Agent Ronald Rawalt, a mineralogist and paleontologist who had performed a feat of geological espionage in Mexico that had essentially solved the murder of an American drug agent there. Rawalts home and office were in North Platte, Nebraska. So, logically, fly to Denver and drive to North Platte. Right? Not so fast. Rawalt was instructed to meet me at 9 a.m. on January 24th in a room in the federal building in Omaha two hundred and eighty miles from his home. When I went into the room, the minder was there. He was there for eight or nine hours, but, as it happened, not for the entire interview. Rawalt was talking petrology, mineralogy, crystallography, the solubility of quartz, and the exoscopic study of sands. I never learned the minders name. It probably would not be fair to say that he went to sleep. He was quiet, though, and as evening settled in he departed. Rawalt talked on, and was still talking twelve hours after we had begun.
I had used a tape recorder throughout. Back home, as I was transcribing his narrative, I discovered that among the cassettes one had failed. Stunned, I called Rawalt, who asked what he had been saying at the end of the previous cassette and what he had said at the start of the one that followed. With a machine of his own, on his kitchen table, in North Platte, he narrated anew an indispensable part of the story. Rawalt paid for the postage, you did not.
One very foggy morning five years later, I was in my office on the Princeton campus, the phone rang, and the Council of the Humanities informed me that an F.B.I. agent had come in asking for me and had gone out again; his name was Rawalt and he was waiting in the fog. I bolted down several flights of stairs and out the door. Rawalt said he was working on a white-collar crime in the vicinity. In the vicinity was as close as he was going to come to GPS coordinates. A helicopter was required for this assignment, and the helicopter was grounded by the fog. He said he just wanted to say hello.
And five years after that, I found myself in near-catastrophic frustration while I was trying to complete a book, the final part of which was planned to involve a journey in a Union Pacific coal train. Over many months, I had prepared for the event, and the railroad had encouraged me, but now the railroad was doing the Jackie Gleason. I called a couple of times a dayday after day after dayand the calls were not returned, by company people in Omaha who had earlier given me a week of invaluable orientation, including visits to the Union Pacific rail yard in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and to the bunker, an impregnable building in Omaha where dispatchers control everything that is happening on nineteen thousand miles of track. And now, a couple of months later, I was back home calling Omaha, listening to a machine, and leaving messages. My book was dead in the water, and my wits seemed to have come to an end. A light turned on. I called Ron Rawalt. Maybe he could help. Th!
e rail yard in North Platte is the largest in the world. Rawalt said, Fly to Denver and drive to North Platte. A day and a half later, I was having breakfast with the local secretary-treasurer of the United Transportation Union, the local chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, and Rawalt. The morning after that, I was out on the Triple-Track Main, rolling for Kansas, in the cab of a Union Pacific coal train seven thousand four hundred and eighty-five feet long.
Also in the studio was Maggie Smith, a young beauty still in her twenties, with her large eyes, her incisive face, her auburn hair. She was playing a small role as a quiet secretary secretly in love with her employer. When Maggie Smith was not acting, she sat reading, oblivious of the tabloid whirl around her. Take note of her, Burton said; she has more talent than anyone else in the building. After doing a scene with her, he said he had been overshadowed and outacted. Written by the playwright Terence Rattigan, the film, set at Heathrow, was about a rich mans wife running off with a lover, but Heathrow is fogged in, and her husband shows up to plead with her.
That his performance would be recorded far beyond St. Johns Wood was largely due to a critical remark made more than midway in Hamlets run. Burtons Hamlet was something like a corrida, good one night, disappointing the next. But when he had his color and gave it the full Welsh timbre, he thrilled audiences long accustomed to the tremulous Gielgud reading. He had completed about sixty performances and the box office was beginning to slide when the house manager came to his dressing room one evening and said, Be especially good tonight. The old mans out front.
What old man?
He comes once a year, said the house manager. He stays for one act and he leaves.
For Gods sake, what old man?
As Burton spoke his first line "A little more than kin, and less than kind" he was startled to hear deep identical mutterings from the front row. Churchill continued to follow him line for line, a dramaturgical beagle, his face a thunderhead when something had been cut. I tried to shake him off, Burton remembers. I went fast and I went slow, but he was right there. Churchill was right there to the end, in fact, when Burton took eighteen curtain calls and Churchill told a reporter: It was as exciting and virile a performance of Hamlet as I can remember. Years later, when Winston Churchill The Valiant Years was under preparation for television, its producers asked Sir Winston who he thought should do the voice of Churchill. Get that boy from the Old Vic, said the old man.
They got that boy from the Old Vic.
A useful comparison is to the science of geochronology, which I once tried to explain with this description:
Imagine an E. L. Doctorow novel in which Alfred Tennyson, William Tweed, Abner Doubleday, Jim Bridger, and Martha Jane Canary sit down to a dinner cooked by Rutherford B. Hayes. Geologists would call that a fossil assemblage. And, without further assistance from Doctorow, a geologist could quickly decideas could anyone elsethat the dinner must have occurred in the middle eighteen-seventies, because Canary was eighteen when the decade began, Tweed became extinct in 1878, and the biographies of the others do not argue with these limits.
Actually, Mr. Shawn was just another spear-carrier in the hall of usage and grammar. The dais was occupied for more than half a century by Eleanor Gould, Miss Gould, who was Mrs. Packard, and whose wide reputation seeped down even into the awareness of apprentice writers everywhere. I was scarcely eighteen, and already collecting rejection slips, when I heard or read about a twenty-two-year-old Vassar graduate named Eleanor Gould, who, in 1925, bought a copy of the brand-new New Yorker, read it, and then reread it with a blue pencil in her hand. When she finished, the magazine was a mottled blue on every pagea circled embarrassment of dangling modifiers, conflicting pronouns, absent commas, and over-all grammatical hash. She mailed the marked-up copy to Harold Ross, the founding editor, and Ross was said to have bellowed. What he bellowed was Find this bitch and hire her!
And inevitably we have come to Ernest Hemingway and the tip of the icebergor, how to fashion critical theory from one of the worlds most venerable clichs. If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The two sentences are from Death in the Afternoon, a nonfiction book (1932). They apply as readily to fiction. Hemingway sometimes called the concept the Theory of Omission. In 1958, in an Art of Fiction interview for The Paris Review, he said to George Plimpton, Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.
After four days of preparation and writing after routinely staying up almost all night on the fourth nightand after tailoring your stories past the requests, demands, fine tips, and incomprehensible suggestions of the M.E. and your senior editor, you came in on Day 5 and were greeted by galleys from Makeup with notes on them that said Green 5 or Green 8 or Green 15 or some such, telling you to condense the text by that number of lines or the piece would not fit in the magazine. You were supposed to use a green pencil so Makeup would know what could be put back, if it came to that. I cant remember it coming to that.
Groan as much as you liked, you had to green nearly all your pieces, and greening was a craft in itselfstudying your completed and approved product, your finished piece, to see what could be left out. In fifty years, The New Yorkers makeup department has asked me only once to remove some lines so a piece would fit. The New Yorker has the flexibility of spot drawings to include or leave out, and cartoons of varying and variable dimensions, and poems that can be there or not be there. Things fit, even if some things have to wait a week or two, or six months. Greening has stayed with me, though, because for four decades I have inflicted it on my college writing students, handing them nine or ten swatches of photocopied prose, each marked Green 3 or Green 4 or whatever.
I give them thirty-two lines of Joseph Conrad going up that river like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. Green 3, if you dare. I give them Thomas McGuanes ode to the tarpon as grand piano (twenty lines, Green 3), Irving Stones passionate declaration of his love of stone (nine lines, Green 1), Philip Roths character Lonoff the novelist describing the metronomic boredom of the writing process in prose that metronomically repeats itself to make its point (try greening that), twenty-five lines, Green 3. I ask them to look up the first three pieces they have written for the course, to choose the one they preferred working on, then green ten per cent. And I give them the whole of the Gettysburg Address (twenty-five lines, Green 3).