I’ve always been suspicious of writing advice given by authors. Like parenting advice, it’s based on knowledge that’s highly intensive, but also extremely limited: even the most prolific writer has intimate, unfiltered knowledge of the writing process of exactly one person — him/herself.
Instead of a list of tips or steps to follow (not that those can’t help every once in a while), what I love is listening to writers narrate their own experiences. They often tell compelling, illuminating stories about coming into their vocation, of finding their way into stories, and of dealing with the pleasures and challenges of a difficult and opaque process.
If some word appealed to me, I’d say it over and over again. It would go around in my head the way the snatches of a song would.
(John McPhee, The Art of Nonfiction No. 3)
“The Art of Nonfiction,” a series of interviews with authors at The Paris Review, is a rich, incredibly satisfying resource if, like me, you love letting writers speak. And speak. And speak. About everything and anything. It’s not a huge archive just yet — its fiction counterpart is much bigger (you can find all interviews here) — but with extensive, sprawling conversations with the likes of Gay Talese and Joan Didion, there’s not much reason to complain, either.
One of my favorite installments is the interview with nonfiction writer John McPhee, a frequent New Yorker contributor and Pulitzer Prize winner. Instead of laying out a long litany of writerly tenets, McPhee gives honest, generous answers about his writing process and the long arc of his career. Here he is on a question close to my heart, the supposed benefits of reading your drafts out loud:
McPhee: Certainly the aural part of writing is a big, big thing to me. I can’t stand a sentence until it sounds right, and I’ll go over it again and again. Once the sentence rolls along in a certain way, that’s sentence A. Sentence B may work out well, but then its effect on sentence A may spoil the rhythm of the two together. One of the long-term things about knitting a piece of writing together is making all this stuff fit.
I always read the second draft aloud, as a way of moving forward. I read primarily to my wife, Yolanda, and I also have a friend whom I read to. I read aloud so I can hear if it’s fitting together or not. It’s just as much a part of the composition as going out and buying a ream of paper.
Interviewer: Why don’t you read aloud to yourself?
McPhee: I think because it strikes me as insane. I have to have somebody listening, and the somebody listening can be helpful with comments. But mostly the person is just listening. Yolanda doesn’t challenge me very much. The one stricture she set down was that she would only take ten minutes of geology at a time.
From discussing the genesis of some of his iconic pieces (like his profile of future-Senator Bill Bradley, in 1965) to sharing anecdotes about his many friends in the writing and publishing worlds, you leave this interview enriched. It’s as if you’ve lucked into sitting next to McPhee (or any of the other interviewees in the series) on a long, pleasant train ride.
There are many great writing resources on the internet — including here on The Daily Post — focusing on the nitty-gritty, technical aspects of stringing words into compelling narratives. Sometimes, though, it’s great to step back and just enjoy the voice of those who’ve already told great stories, and did it well.
Is there an author whose words on writing you’ve found especially powerful and/or useful? Share it with us in the comments.
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