Tuesday, May 14, 2013
April 29, 2013 Issue
One of the most intimidating observations I’ve ever read about writing is John Updike’s theory “that if a short story doesn’t pour smooth from the start, it never will” (Foreword to The Early Stories, 2003). Nothing I’ve ever written, including this blog, has ever “poured smooth.” For me, writing is struggle. This is one of the reasons I enjoy reading John McPhee’s pieces on “The Writing Life.” They show a master writer flat on his back on a picnic table, “staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing for The New Yorker” (“Structure,” The New Yorker, January 14, 2013). His absorbing and entertaining “Draft No. 4,” in the magazine’s current issue, contains this solacing revelation: “Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall.” This from the creator of such consummately crafted pieces as “The Encircled River” (The New Yorker, May 2 & 9, 1977), “Atchafalaya” (The New Yorker, February 23, 1987), and “Season on the Chalk” (The New Yorker, March 12, 2007). “To feel doubt is part of the picture,” McPhee says. This is reassuring to hear; I frequently feel doubt about my writing ability. It’s comforting to hear a gifted writer like McPhee candidly describe his own struggles. Other pieces in his “The Writing Life” series are “Progression” (The New Yorker, November 14, 2011) and “Editors & Publisher” (The New Yorker, July 2, 2012).