The How and Why of It

Michael Hayward

For advice on the “how” of writing, you can’t go far wrong by consulting John McPhee. McPhee, now eighty-seven, a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of thirty books or so, has a new book out, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), compiled from eight pieces that first appeared in the New Yorker. The piece that gives the book its title is about writers’ block—among other things. “You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting.” McPhee’s advice? Perseverance; drawing boxes around words; consulting thesauruses; going for a walk. His writing rambles too. McPhee is chattier than I’d remembered, and—magpie-like—he can’t resist a sparkling word, or an opportunity for wordplay. Which may explain in part how he can make even esoteric topics—oranges! bark canoes! a pine forest in New Jersey!—so fascinating. If forced to pick a highlight from this latest book, I’d go with his essay on structure, copiously illustrated with annotated diagrams. “A compelling structure in non-fiction can have an attracting element effect analogous to a story line in fiction.” McPhee’s essays and books are all structurally sound: rock-solid, with each element in its proper place—and the effort that went into making them so is invisible.

The late James Salter wrote impeccable prose, sharply observed details expressed in brief sentences that occasionally let loose, aggregating into passages that perfectly express “emotion recollected in tranquility.” For my money Salter’s best work was in Light Years (1975), a “beautiful, luminous novel […] about the disintegration of a dream” (to quote the front flap). “How does one make prose impeccable?” you might well ask. In search of answers you could look for helpful hints in Salter’s posthumously published The Art of Fiction (University of Virginia Press), a slim volume, of which one third is introduction (by John Casey). The rest of the book consists of transcriptions of three talks given by Salter during his tenure as Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of Virginia, in 214, only months before his death at ninety. “Le mot juste” might be one takeaway from these talks: “There are thousands of ordinary words that make up a book, just as in an army there are many ordinary soldiers and occasional heroes. But there should not be wrong words or words that degrade the sentence or page.” And this worthwhile goal: “Sentences that go together as if that were their only purpose but are not there for their own sake.” As for his reasons for writing, Salter admits to these: “to be admired by others, to be loved by them, to be praised, to be known”; but then adds: “None of those reasons give the strength of the desire.”

Devotion is a pocket-sized volume by Patti Smith, the first in a new series titled Why I Write, from Yale University Press. Smith, known to many as the “punk poet laureate,” was awarded the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 21 for Just Kids, her memoir about New York City in the 197s. Devotion is divided into three sections, the opening and closing pieces being mini-memoirs, which sandwich a somewhat fanciful, and fictional, “tale of obsession” about an ice skater and a collector. The mini-memoirs offer insights into the inspirations for the tale itself, inspirations that include a visit to Paris, and the courtyard garden of Gallimard, her French publisher; to Sète, and the grave of poet Paul Valéry; to the Provençal town of Lourmarin, where Camus lived, died and is buried. Why do we write? “Because we cannot simply live.”

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