McPhee, day 2
by Dame Eleanor Hull
“When I was through studying, separating, defining, and coding the whole body of notes, I had thirty-six three-by-five cards, each with two or three code words representing a component of the story. All I had to do was put them in order. What order? An essential part of my office furniture in those years was a standard sheet of plywood—thirty-two square feet—on two saw-horses. I strewed the cards face up on the plywood.”
Later in the essay, McPhee gives more details about the process of “separating, defining, and coding,” which eventually gets somewhat automated with a computer program written specially for him by his friendly IT guy. Possibly recent commercial developments would work similarly (I don’t know; we’ll get to that somewhere down the road). But the program is modelled specifically on his work process. The important work is the studying, defining, sorting, abstracting, the mental work. This is the sort of work that gets glossed over in the urgent exhortations to “just write” (and which, again, I would point out is not actually Boicean, since Boice’s Rule #1 is “Wait” while you read, collect data, take notes, and so on; he is anti-rush. But of course his advice has been bastardized. I digress).
Even though I know that I need to do the sorting, collating, story-boarding, etc., in order to get a good final product, I get frustrated and impatient with the time this takes. I start urging myself to “just write,” instead of taking the time I need. This is counter-productive. In the long run, it’s faster to do the job right than to do it badly and have to re-do it. And so—back to the idea of writing as social process that needs reinforcement—seeing a major author speak so matter-of-factly about “studying, separating, defining, and coding the whole body of notes” (almost as a throw-away aside, as if to say “obviously a writer needs to do this”) is remarkably reassuring. It’s a voice with which to counter the urgings—internal or external—to write before there is a structure in which to write.