Can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying reading Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book Of Food And Drink, a collection of the best food pieces from the magazine. Over the course of three bedtimes, I made my way through a 1968 profile the great John McPhee wrote about Euell Gibbons, the wild-food forager. I had expected it to be a slog; you might recall that I posted one of Gibbons’s ’70s-era Grape Nuts commercials on this blog. I had just started the McPhee essay, and remembered Gibbons as a sort of weird minor pop culture figure from my childhood.
But the piece turned out to be very, very good, even compulsively readable. Gibbons was this incredibly American character, eccentric and self-made and brilliant and weird, and McPhee brought him vividly to life. I don’t know McPhee’s work well, but every one of his long-form essays has struck me as a virtuoso example of controlled writing. He goes on and on and on, but there is such an evenness to his tone, and he never, ever drags. His essays are so well structured that you don’t even notice the structure, only intuit it after your done and wonder how he managed to make something that big and heavy soar into the heavens. Where the hell are the flying buttresses in this thing?
In the current issue of the New Yorker, McPhee, 81, has an essay about story structure, and how he has used it. The piece is behind the paywall, so I can’t link to it. It makes me realize a few things about my own writing:
1. Thank God I had a good editor for Little Way, because I am terribly disorganized, and write entirely by instinct. That can usually get me through the kinds of pieces I usually write, but a book is something very different.
2. If I had a better sense for organization, who knows what kinds of things I could achieve as a writer? All this raw energy and sprawling curiosity, but such a feeble ability to channel it.
3. I wonder how my writing would have been different — and better — if I had had formal training in structure, and had learned how to impose a sophisticated structure on a narrative.
4. I’m not good at teaching writing. I can give elementary hints, but I don’t know how I do what I do, and I wish I could do it better. I’ve always been reflexively skeptical about graduate writing programs, but I now wish I had the tools as a writer to do what McPhee can do. I mean, I wish I were a craftsman.
5. Is it ever too late to learn about the craft aspects of writing? I’ve been writing professionally for over two decades. My style is pretty much set. But I read McPhee on structure, and I realize how very much I don’t know, and need to know if I’m ever going to be any good.
6. I wonder if I learned how to impose a structure on my daily life, to what extent that would teach me how to impose a structure onto my narratives.
Thoughts from you writers are welcome.