THE HOW AND WHY OF IT

Geist - - Endnotes - —Michael Hay­ward

For ad­vice on the “how” of writ­ing, you can’t go far wrong by con­sult­ing John Mcphee. Mcphee, now eighty­seven, 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 2014, 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 2010 for Just Kids, her mem­oir about New York City in the 1970s. 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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