January 9, 2014 4:16 PM   Subscribe

The notes from one to the next frequently had little in common. They jumped from topic to topic, and only in places were sequentially narrative. 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.
That was then. It's the computer age. What does he do now?
He [one of McPhee's colleagues at Princeton] 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 Gates—in 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 requirements—an 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.
posted by notyou at 5:03 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Madness and genius. Wow.
posted by rtha at 5:50 PM on January 9, 2014

I accumulate piles of half-read New Yorkers and often lose track of articles that I wanted to read. So thanks for the reminder.
posted by Standard Orange at 6:01 PM on January 9, 2014

I had the privilege of looking at Melville's manuscripts in their library repository, and he compose the same way - only he used pins to attach the scissored scraps apart, and his daughters ended up transcribing the whole piece.

To this day, even though I compose in a word processor, I find the organizational part of writing long pieces to be an intensely physical-feeling process.
posted by Miko at 6:14 PM on January 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

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.

So very wise, so true.

Now that I'm done with the piece, I'm amazed. What a great piece of writing - many provocative ideas in there.
posted by Miko at 6:41 PM on January 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Well fuck, now I'm going to have to abandon the other books I'm reading and go reread some of my favorite McPhee.
posted by rtha at 6:52 PM on January 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by xowie at 6:56 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would swear that years ago I came across a piece by John McPhee in which he wrote about his struggles with getting a sizeable narrative launched--in this case, Coming into the Country, his book about Alaska--which he finally, in some desperation, ended up starting as a letter to his mother: "Hi, mom--Well, here I am in Alaska, and it's really interesting. Today I saw--" etc. etc. and when he got to a stopping point he scratched out the "Hi, Mom," and went onward.

Even if I'm totally confabulating this, it's been an enormously helpful anecdote/approach in getting me and students I've advised launched on balky and intimidating writing projects. But this article goes miles above and beyond that--I can only echo Miko in saying this is amazing and inspiring. God bless ya, Mr. McPhee.
posted by Kat Allison at 6:58 PM on January 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think this is particularly helpful reading because I've blown so many anecdotes trying to fit in every last detail in chronological order. My desire for completeness turns even a simple journal entry into a sterile laundry list of "and then and then and then."

McPhee's small details and time shifts make his writing dance and shimmer, and I am so, so jealous of his ability to preserve those moments on the page.
posted by Turkey Glue at 7:09 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I saw someone on here raving about Scrivener so I checked it out. Now I'm a fan. Still not perfect, but definitely a huge leap forward for me in terms of organization.
posted by GrapeApiary at 7:44 PM on January 9, 2014

He talks about his structuring process -- and Olive McKee -- in great detail in his Paris Review interview, also.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 7:58 PM on January 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

McPhee is truly one of the greats.
posted by OmieWise at 4:56 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is brilliant - thanks very, very, very much TG.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 2:57 PM on January 10, 2014

I recently read a piece he wrote in "The New Yorker" about lost golf balls. I remember thinking "I can't believe I'm reading an article about lost golf balls" but I couldn't stop because it was so well-written. He's doing something right.
posted by acrasis at 9:01 AM on January 11, 2014

It's McPhee's fault that I really love rocks and geology, and that I know weird bits of things about shad, canoes, landslides, Scotland, basketball, long-haul truckers, levees, and farming onions in New Jersey.
posted by rtha at 9:44 AM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

McPhee golf ball piece (sorry, full story subscribers only).
posted by Chrysostom at 4:17 PM on January 11, 2014

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