This week’s issue of The New Yorker, dated Jan. 14, 2013 (right), arrived in the mail with a gift for all writers. Under the rubric “The Writing Life,” the great John McPhee has written a piece simply titled “Structure.”
You need to read it.
And that directive applies regardless of whether, like McPhee, you write nonfiction narrative journalism, or you write memoir, short stories, novels or some other form of prose. There is something in there for any writer who has ever struggled with how to organize a piece of writing—which means all of us.
I haven’t even finished the article yet. It is so dense with wise advice that I am purposely taking my time. But I wanted to let you know about it right away. Here is one excerpt, from many, that distills a fundamental challenge of structure clearly and brilliantly:
“Developing a structure is seldom. . .simple. Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins. The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected. They want to draw themselves together in a single body, in the way that salt does underground. But chronology usually dominates. As themes prove inconvenient, you find some way to tuck them in. Through flashbacks and flash-forwards, you can move around in time, of course, but such a structure remains under chronological control and can’t do much about items that are scattered thematically. There’s nothing wrong with a chronological structure. On tablets in Babylonia, most pieces were written that way, and nearly all pieces are written that way now. After ten years of it at Time and The New Yorker, I felt both rutted and frustrated by always knuckling under to the sweep of chronology, and I longed for a thematically dominated structure.”
McPhee, now 81, then shows us how he met this challenge in his 1967 profile of Thomas P. F. Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum, complete with a diagram of the eventual structure. It is one of several illustrative examples he offers in the article.
You don’t need to try to get into Princeton, pay $55,000 in tuition, room and board, and then hope to get into McPhee’s famous “Creative Nonfiction” course to learn from the master. (One who did study at Princeton with McPhee, and told us about it at the Library, when she spoke at an author lunch several years ago, is Jennifer Weiner, whose best-selling novels couldn’t be more different from McPhee’s work. Nevertheless, she said his advice helped her become a successful writer.)
Just read “Structure.” It is the latest in a series about his life as a writer that McPhee been contributing to The New Yorker. Someday, if his usual m.o. applies, McPhee’s pieces on his writing life will be published as a book, and we’ll be struck by how well they hold together as a unified whole rather than as a collection of previously published articles. It will be a book I’ll buy.—Alex McNab
[A note: On The New Yorker’s website, the full text of McPhee’s article is locked to all but subscribers. A simple Google search listed a link that tied into the entire text, so you can try doing that—although, as a former magazine editor, my conscience prohibits me from publishing the link here. Of course, the print edition of the magazine is available in the Periodicals Room in the Main Library and at the Fairfield Woods Branch.]