John McPhee. Drawing by me
Anybody interested in non-fiction writing could learn a lot from John McPhee. He’s written books and long stories for the New Yorker over many decades, taught people who went on to become great writers themselves, and recently published a book about how to write.
This week, when The Paris Review opened up one of its long interviews for to anybody to read – they do a different writer every week, to lure new subscribers with amazing content – I was delighted to find that the interviewee was McPhee1.
I read the interview on my phone, which is less than optimal, while preparing dinner yesterday. (Salad, featuring quinoa, cucumber, peas, butter beans, onion, olive oil, salt, pepper and feta cheese2.)
I highlighted bits of text, but because I was reading on a browser, the highlights wouldn’t stay highlighted unless I made a screengrab.
So I did that, 23 times.
Now I have enough screengrabs to make a little booklet. But I’m not sure yet what kind of booklet it will be.
And, you might ask: why make a booklet at all? What’s wrong with just highlighting the good stuff? I can find it any time I like, in my Photos app. Why does it have to go from digital to analogue?
Well, it’s not imperative, but I feel like it. I moaned the other day about how we’re not taught, at school, to become connoisseurs of our intuition3. I’m trying to get better at following my instinct. And my instinct told me that I liked McPhee’s ideas so much I’d like to make a little booklet. It doesn’t happen to every interview I read on Paris Review.
I need to stare at it for a while, as McPhee says he does when writing a book, or lengthy article:
After staring for long enough, he says, a solution begins to emerge:
So meaning derives from the simple fact of putting two things together. This reminds me of the American artist and nun, Sister Corita Kent, who used to combine in her screen prints lines from scripture with bits of imagery from everyday mid-20th century life.
Often the imagery she used was a logo, a corporate slogan, or a bit of packaging – for commercial bread, for instance. Sometimes she used the masthead from big American magazines. She wrote about why she liked to bring together the spiritual and the everyday:
Maybe you can’t understand the psalms without understanding the newspaper, and the other way around. Maybe that’s why it sounds so good when a line from the newspaper is inserted after each line of a psalm, any line, and read aloud. Maybe they were never meant to be separated. We choose to LOOK at LIFE all the TIME [three magazine titles] and although they are in one sense adult comic books, they are also full of things that speak. A photo of a hurt soldier becomes a holy card.
The point is simple: juxtaposition is enriching.
Obviously, the effect depends enormously on what, specifically, you choose to put together; but it’s worth pausing for a moment to recognise the power of juxtaposition, regardless of the specific content.
The point applies whether the juxtaposition is verbal or visual, or both, because we’re meaning-seeking creatures and we look for patterns even in what we know to be random.
Mark Forsyth, in Elements of Eloquence4, writes about the isocolon, a modest figure of speech that brings two things together:
roses are red, violets are blue.
Other figures of speech might attempt to guide your thinking about the components, but isocolon just lets them stand before us, together. We hear the words and our minds rush about making judgements (do we prefer roses? do we love blue? are roses also sometimes not-red? why are we being told about flowers? why are we distinguishing between two colours?)
When Kent combines words about the Last Supper with the packaging of a white loaf, you see them both in new light, because she’s thrown them into relationship.
In that particular case – for me, today, anyway – the combination makes me think of the Last Supper as slightly more everyday than I might otherwise, as an actual meal, for real people, instead of something mysterious and far away; and it confers a kind of holiness on ordinary commercial sliced bread.
But I wouldn’t say the juxtaposition “lifts up” one element and “lowers” the other, because unless the intention is plainly satirical, I don’t think the procedure diminishes. On the contrary, by putting both things into the spotlight, juxtaposition raises both: what was previously overlooked is now seen, and what was seen already is seen afresh.
Mind you, what McPhee described was entirely verbal. And there’s a difference, because (as noted in yesterday’s essay) visuals operate in space while words achieve their effect through time.
Tell me two stories, entirely unrelated, and I’ll find a common theme. Tell me the same stories in reverse order and I’ll still find a common theme but the overall effect will be different.
Sad story > happy story = reader is left happy
Happy story > sad story = reader is left feeling sad
Changing the order in which you tell a story can have an entirely different moral effect.
In his novel Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis tells a man’s life story backwards. On the first page, the protagonist emerges out of death into a room full of doctors. One of the scenes that made me splutter with delight at the sheer ingenuity of the storytelling involved (if memory serves) the main character scuttling into a bedroom where another man is berating his (the other man’s) wife. The main character climbs into bed with her. After a moment, the husband leaves.
By telling the story backwards, Amis gives the characters (what seem to be) entirely different morals and motivations. The adulterer seems brazenly to walk in and get into bed with the other man’s wife, rather than getting out of bed and skulking out of the room; and the husband seems to calm down and depart cheerfully, letting the adulterers get on with it.
Writers of mystery and detective stories use something like this process, because by telling us about their characters’ actions in the “wrong” (non-chronological sequence) they deliberately confuse us about the characters’ true motives. Baddies turn out to be goodies, and vice versa.
Who cares? Why does this matter? I sit at my computer keyboard, at 16.07 on Thursday 9 September 2021, wondering for the umpteenth time why I am writing this.
As must surely be obvious, I write partly because I find it all rather interesting. But I’m also conscious that I have an audience of some kind. What do you want? What do you think? What’s in it for you?
Writing is transactional. I can write “for myself”, as people are told to do on writing courses. And I do. But fundamentally I write for a reader. Who is it?
I started writing these essays to gather material for a book of some kind on How To Write, at the welcome prompting of my agent. That’s one reader. I sent links to the essays to people on my email list. That’s more. And I posted them to LinkedIn.
As soon as I write the word LinkedIn, my brain starts telling me that I ought to put in a line about how the insights of McPhee, Sister Corita and Martin Amis will help you, Dear Reader, to write better marketing etc etc. And a part of me dies, as I imagine the dreary click-bait headlines:
Seven Amazing Writing Tips
That Will Make Your Customers
Blah Blah Blah.
How This Nun’s Poster Designs
Will Transform Your Client Relationships
I hate that stuff. I hate the fakery of it. The dullness, the instrumental assumption that Your Customers and Your Clients are basically little robots who will all respond the same way to everything. As a way of thinking about writing, this seeks to eliminate risk, surprise, and any kind of play. Ugh, ugh, ugh.
The fact is that you probably could learn all kinds of things that would be valuable to you, commercially, if you read more Paris Review interviews, checked out the screenprints of Sister Corita, and went through the novels of Martin Amis with a red pen.
Last night, after preparing the dinner and just before eating it, I learned about something unpleasant that’s unfolding right now, in the public domain. People I know are somewhat involved, which increases the unpleasantness. The person who told me about this wondered if the time had come to make some kind of intervention.
We don’t live in a dictatorship, but this unpleasant thing is unpleasant largely because it has to do with people saying ugly things publicly. On a subject that seems to provoke strong feelings whatever your point of view – and you can’t publicly declare that you have “no opinion”, because that itself would be considered bad by everybody who does. It’s a subject you just don’t want to be dragged into.
I didn’t know what to say, and didn’t say much, and happily that was OK.
But like I said earlier, we’re pattern-making creatures. Everything that I subsequently read, watched and heard was understood in the light of this unpleasant thing.
I thought about about what McPhee said in the Paris Review:
There’s a hell of a lot of stuff that I don’t have to say. It’s told by the structure
Was it possible that I could find a way to address the unpleasant thing, without saying anything but allowing it to be “told by the structure”? What did that even mean?
I turned to my bookshelves, pulled down a hardback anthology of writing published in the Soviet journal Novy Mir5. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Not consciously, anyway. But I found it.
Novy Mir was a mainstream Soviet publication throughout the worst years of Stalinist repression. Writers who wanted to address the situation in their country had to find ways to do it that would not get them executed. They had a hell of a lot of stuff to say, as McPhee might put it, and they had to let the structure say it.
One essay in the anthology was written by a theatre critic. Alexander Anikst started with a review of a play by Ionesco that he had seen in New York. Then, curiously and without any real pretext, Anikst launched into analysis of two American bestsellers of the 1950s, which seem to have nothing to do with Ionescu. The editor of the anthology6 explains:
Odd though this apparently tortuous combination may seem to the Western reader, its genre is instantly recognisable to a Russian. The reason is plain… dissident voices have generally had to be cloaked in ostensibly innocent, non-political subject-matter [and] Russian intellectuals have had to exploit with cunning the minimal leeway available to them in the media of literature, drama, scholarship and criticism to put across in oblique, coded form ideas which in a more open society are the common coin of social and political debate.
The genre as a whole is usually defined as “Aesopian”: you talk in one set of categories, knowing that your listeners will realise that you are referring to another set, i.e., to an area where explicit critical comment is taboo.
One playwright wrote plays based on the fairy tales of Hans Andersen, or made up his own, imbuing his apparently childlike, humorous fantasies with subtle critiques of Stalinism… Others used analysis of historical characters or events to draw telling parallels with the present.
Anikst wrote what was known as “mirror writing”: he held up a mirror to other countries, specifically the United States, which was regarded as a legitimate object of critical analysis for a Soviet writer. Holding his mirror up to the wicket capitalist world, the author describes its evils with much display of righteous horror and… concludes with a comforting homily on the lines of “It can’t happen here, comrades.”
I still don’t know what kind of booklet I’m going to make out of my screenshots of McPhee. I could include some artwork by Sister Corita, obviously. I could write a few bits of psalms. I could throw in something about Ionesco, or Aesop. I could interpolate some historical story that evokes the unpleasant thing that’s unfolding in the public domain right now.
I don’t know. I’ll put all this material out on the table, as McPhee described, and see what comes to mind.
1 ↩︎ McPhee. You can read the Paris Review interview, though the paywall may have gone back up by the time you read this. The magazine’s email subscribers get a new archive story like this every week.
McPhee’s latest book is Draft No4: On The Writing Process (if you buy with that link, I get a small referral fee).
2 ↩︎ Salad. Only the quinoa needed cooking: wash, bring to a fast boil, then simmer for 20 mins. The rest of the ingredients, needing only to be washed and (in some cases) chopped, allowed me no time to read. Why do I mention this? Because my favourite kind of cooking involves whipping something up using whatever I happen to have, rather than finding a recipe and going shopping for the necessary ingredients. Nothing wrong with the other approach, but improvisation and throwing unexpected things together is just how I like to proceed. I’m doing it, as I’m sure you can see, with this essay.
Just for a joke, at my own expense, I’m adding here a link to quinoa for sale on Amazon – a link that will, like the one above for McPhee’s book, get me a small referral fee if you buy with it. It amuses me to use this supposedly literary essay to promote a 10 kilo sack of quinoa, certified by the Soil Association and (did you know?) a source of protein containing magnesium, phosphorus, copper and manganese.