“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.

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6 thoughts on “McPhee, day 2

  1. Excuse me Dame Eleanor, for interrupting this thread, but I’m going to use some of your ideas (the link you posted) and would appreciate being able to acknowledge you in my syllabus. Please email me at bardiacblogger@yahoo.com so I can find out how you’d prefer being acknowledged. Thanks, Bardiac!

  2. I do start out by “just writ[ing],” until I have 20 or 40 or whatever number of pages or have run through the basic stuff I think I need to say. But then I frequently do a version of what it sounds like McPhee does: I print out the whole thing and cut it up into units. Sometimes the units are just a paragraph, but often they’re a few pages long (those I tape together into a single physical unit). And I move them around on my floor, trying to thing of a better or more logical organization than whatever I came up with originally.

    Then I tape these pieces up on a blank wall, in their new order, to think about–and I’ll sketch out transitions or new segments in longhand to unite the pieces or fill in some gaps. Then, if I’m happy with the organization, I’ll transfer those changes to my electronic copy and do more drafting and tidying on the computer. (In the old days I’d go through this process multiple times, but now I usually only do it once.)

    My grad school classmates referred to this as my “magnetic poetry” approach, but it’s really been helpful to me over the years. I need to start by writing SOMETHING–I never really know what the component parts will be in advance–but my initial organization of my ideas is rarely the strongest one.

  3. Like Flavia, I’ve got to write a lot first, to see what my ideas are. I need to spend time thinking on paper and thinking aloud. I do always have a rather intense time of figuring out my structure once I have some complex ideas. The structure, though, often leads to even better ideas as I see how things fit together.

  4. I “just write” too but I call that notetaking. Then yes, the magnetic poetry. This is where I get confused when people say to just write — I think they mean I should compose without first doing what I call notetaking.

    1. McPhee writes, in the first paragraph of this essay, about note-taking: On top of the interviews he had conducted, “I had read all the books I was going to read, and scientific papers, and a doctoral dissertation. I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.” Help comes from a memory of a high school teacher and her emphasis on structure, and so “I spent half the night slowly sorting, making little stacks of thematically or chronologically associated notes, and arranging them in an order that seemed to hang well from that lead sentence” ‘The citizen has certain misgivings.'” Like you, Z, McPhee starts with his opening sentence.

      That’s a lot of writing to get a silo’s worth of material. But there’s writing and then there’s writing the final product. I too assemble masses of notes and quotes and thinking about whatever I’m writing, but like Flavia, my initial organization is not strong. In fact, I normally bury the lede, and I try to cultivate friends/readers who can help me find it.

      1. “I spent half the night slowly sorting, making little stacks of thematically or chronologically associated notes, and arranging them in an order that seemed to hang well from that lead sentence” ‘The citizen has certain misgivings.’”

        McPhee, c’est moi.

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