Many reading this right now will not have heard of him, fewer still will have read any of his books, notably his Pulitzer Prize-winning 700-page geology anthology, Annals of the Former World. But make no mistake about it, John McPhee is a legend in the literary world for a few reasons, one of which is his “obsessive process.”
In an article for The New York Times titled “The Mind of John McPhee,” Sam Anderson visited the reclusive Mr. McPhee at his home and has now written about this experience as well as the man himself – and there’s a lot to take away from it, even if you’re not a hermit (“shy to the point of dread”) or a writer.
As Mr. Anderson writes so eloquently:
“Every book about writing addresses, in one way or another, the difficulty of writing. Not just the technical problems (eliminating clutter, composing transitions) but the great existential agony and heebie-jeebies and humiliation involved — the inability to start, to finish, or to progress in the middle. This is one of the genre’s great comforts: learning that you are not alone in your suffering.”
He then goes on to quote other literary figures on the same subject:
William Zinsser: “It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.”
Annie Dillard: “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.”
Anne Lamott: “Your mind has become a frog brain that scientists have saturated with caffeine.”
For anybody who enjoys reading and learning about the process that goes into the craft, this is a rare behind-the-scenes look at one of the art form’s great masters.