May 14, 2003: A moment with...

John McPhee ’53

Photo by Ricardo Barros

During John McPhee ’53’s college days, nonfiction writing and journalistic prose were not considered literature. Their “synonyms were tainted by the fish they had wrapped,” McPhee once wrote. But as a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1965, and author of 26 books on topics ranging from basketball to geology to shad fishing, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize—winner has played a major role in cementing nonfiction as literature. The son of a university doctor, McPhee grew up on Princeton’s campus (“I knew where every urinal was, where every pool table was, and every basketball hoop,” he says.) Since 1975, as the Ferris Professor of Journalism, McPhee has helped dozens of students become writers. PAW’s Argelio Dumenigo spoke with McPhee as his 50th reunion approached.

How difficult is it to teach writing?

I have often drawn an analogy to when I was a Princeton student. In the summertime I taught swimming to kids at a camp in Vermont. They knew how to swim. I was trying to help them get through the water with more efficiency, more smoothness, speed. That’s what I do here. These kids can write – I’m not teaching them how to write. The center of this course is the private conferences I have with my students. I pretend that I’m their editor, and I’ve gone through their work and filled it up with marginalia. Then we talk, and they go away with whatever they want to go away with.

Is there any single thing you see in students that makes you say, “Here’s a good writer?”

No, I think writers grow over time. There are people publishing something wonderful when they’re 21 years old, but those are exceptions. One point I make at the very beginning of the class is that writers are unique. It’s like DNA, a snowflake, or a thumbprint; there are no two writers alike. Therefore a writer can only grow as that writer. Let me tell you, the kids who just went out of here are 16 absolutely individual people, whose writing manner and style are each one totally different from the manner and style of the other 15.

What do you think makes a good writer?

Perseverance. You have to stay with it. Writers are compulsive and fairly driven people, and that’s what gets them through all the heavy, difficult time of getting a piece of writing in motion and keeping it in motion. You have to have some kind of overriding drive that pushes you through that, or you’d have given it up long since, because a piece of writing takes forever.

What’s your writing process now?

The big thing is doing it routinely, six days a week. It doesn’t mean you’re writing all day. It means you’re writing for a tiny fragment of the day, after you’ve paced around and tried to get going and couldn’t do anything. Finally, you panic because you’re afraid you’re not going to get anything done. And something happens – you get 500 words or 200 words. And the next day you go through the same process so that there are these little pieces of 200 words here and 150 there. But you multiply that by 365, and you’ve got something.

Is it easier now that you’ve been writing for many years?

Not in the first draft. I always start with a blank slate and on square one, with very, very little confidence when I’m beginning a piece of writing. But when I’ve got a first draft written, I think that my experience helps then, and I really enjoy working on a second, third, and fourth draft. But the first draft is misery, and it might go on for over a year. In which case, I’m not a happy person.

What or who inspires you to write?

I just never had any other ambition, and I like to have a writing project that’s in some phase. But I never write during the semester I’m teaching. Teaching is very complementary to the writing effort, but I’m not inside myself. I’m looking at their work, and I’m doing something different on purpose, so when I go back to the writing I’m refreshed. And that has been the key since I started teaching. I have probably written more since 1975 than I would have had I not been teaching.

What thoughts have you been having about your 50th reunion?

I wish it were my 20th. But I’ve never had a sense of going back since Princeton is where I’ve lived all my life. It’s not some remote Shangri-la to me; it’s home. I never realized I’d still be here when I started teaching; I only thought I’d be doing it one year. It’s so rewarding to talk to my students and see their responses to our conversations and my editing. I’m in pretty close touch with a large number of the alumni of the course, too. You can say that the thing that matters to me the most about Princeton is the class I teach.

What will you be working on after this semester?

I’m not starting a book, although you never know what grows into a book. I’m doing pieces for the New Yorker, where one of my former students is the editor [David Remnick ’81]. That doesn’t mean he won’t turn a piece of mine down, though. He has.


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