By Samantha Storms
With the careful elegance that comes from only the skill and trained eye of a master, John McPhee sat on the Guthart Cultural Center Theater stage and read from his most recent book, “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process,” at Hofstra’s 14th annual Great Writers, Great Readings Series on Wednesday, Oct. 15.
“Draft No. 4,” a book that provides an inside look into the mind of a writer and the complex process by which long-term nonfiction works are conceived and finally written, showcases McPhee’s mastery of the written word. The book explains the various situations and issues that a nonfiction writer may come across, such as coming up with the perfect title or dealing with the frustration of writer’s block.
“The book that we are here to celebrate and discuss is his most recent, ’Draft No. 4,’ which is about the writing of [McPhee’s previous] books and articles,” said Kelly McMasters, an assistant professor of English and the interviewer for the morning’s discussion. “It’s about what it means for McPhee, and hopefully for us, to be a writer.”
Early on in the discussion, McPhee explained that he felt indebted to the fact-checking department of the “New Yorker.” His writing, based in pure, factual evidence, depended immensely on an entity that puts such detail and precision into the work of ensuring that the facts of a piece of literature were grounded in validity and truth.
As McPhee read from a few of the book’s chapters, his passion for language and the pure mechanics of writing was evident. The dialogue, intertwined with the technical advice of the book, allows for a language that even a novice writer can appreciate, making for a work that manages to explore both the actual art of putting words to paper and the mindset that a writer should have when approaching a project as complex as McPhee’s previous works of nonfiction such as “Annals of the Former World,” “Coming into the Country” and “The Curve of Binding Energy.”
As McMasters described during the conversation, one of McPhee’s hallmarks has always been his structure, an element of writing that has proven time and time again to be critical to the success of long-form nonfiction writing. He described a teacher he once had that impressed upon him the importance of a strong foundation in writing. It is structure that has been the glue that has upheld his title as the “Father of Creative Nonfiction.”
“It’s important because it just informs the whole piece,” McPhee said. “What structure then yields is the juxtapositions of different sections – different parts. This is the most fascinating part of writing to me – when I’m building a structure for a story.”