McPhee, seven: process

by Dame Eleanor Hull

“Each of those . . . structures was worked out after copying with a typewriter all notes from notebooks and transcribing the contents of microcassettes. . . . The note-typing could take many weeks, but it collected everything in one legible place, and it ran all the raw material in some concentration through the mind.

“The notes from one to the next frequently had little in common.  They jumped from topic to topic, and only in places were sequentially narrative.  So I always rolled the platen and left blank spaces after each item to accommodate the scissors that were fundamental to my advanced methodology.  After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size.  If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders.  One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them . . . . If this sounds mechanical, the effect was absolutely the reverse.  If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. . . . The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week.” (50)

The emphases are mine.  The concentrating of data is crucial for me, and I have had trouble allowing myself to do this.  “Just write.”  No.  McPhee admits that the typing of notes could take weeks—“many” of them—and he doesn’t say how long “reading and rereading,” “developing the structure” and “coding the notes accordingly” takes.  The point is that these are a necessary part of the process.  And when he is done, then he is done.  Then he “just writes” whatever section is the job of the day or week.

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