Thriller Guy would like to take a quick break from the “Mistakes Thriller Writers Make” series. The current issue of The New Yorker has a must-read article for anyone who writes, young, old, newbie or seasoned professional: Draft No. 4. TG loves this piece because McPhee says the same things that TG has been yelling about for years in this blog. TG devoured McPhee’s early writing -- late 70’s, 80’s and even into the early 90’s -- until it finally just became too hard to pay close attention to the hundreds and hundreds of pages as McPhee sank into complexity and minutia until an exhausted TG cried “enough!” and just quit reading him. It was way too much work.
In the early 90’s, TG heard an interview with McPhee in which the writer was asked -- out of his eight hour writing day, how much of that time did he enjoy what he was doing? “About one minute,” he said. “Maybe two if it’s an especially good day.” TG was astounded, not because the time was so little, but because that’s exactly the way TG felt. Here was a real writer and his message that day to TG was: You are not alone. You are not a whining slacker. (Though that word was not yet common.) TG was just like John McPhee! Well, at least on this one small point.
So here comes McPhee in the New Yorker this week and he’s just as adamant as he ever was about the pain and perils of the writing life.
He is particularly good on first drafts: “You are working on a first draft and small wonder you’re unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.”
You can look back in the TG archives and find the many times TG has excoriated the pompous assholes who tell him, and the world, that they live to write, that they would do it for free simply because they must, they are driven to write, blah blah blah. Here’s McPhee: “If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you, “just love to write,” you may be delusional.”
Or like TG says, you’re an asshole. Probably you can’t say that in The New Yorker.
More on first drafts: “For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something – anything – out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something – anything – as a first draft. With that you have achieved a sort of nucleus.”
Exactly. And when you have that first draft you can go back and start fixing things, putting in things, developing some complexity in tone, character and plot. You can then begin the actual business, craft and art of writing.
In a letter to his daughter, a novelist who has said to him that she doubts she should be doing it at all, saying “Who am I kidding?” He responds, “I still ask myself, ‘Who am I kidding?’ Not long ago that question seemed so pertinent to me that I would bury my head in my office pillow. To feel such doubt is a part of the picture – important and inescapable. When I hear some young writer express that sort of doubt, it serves as a check-point; if they don’t say something like it they are quite possibly, well, kidding themselves.”
But enough of TG passing along John McPhee’s advice. Get a copy of the April 29 issue and read it for yourself. It’s full of gold. Keep it in your desk drawer and when you’re asking yourself, “Who am I kidding?’ take it out and reread it. Or just swing on over to TG’s blog and see what he has to say. It’ll be pretty much the same advice, only here the curse words are left in.