dinsdag 31 december 2013

John McPhee talks about structure

Do you know John Mcphee, Dostoyevsky in the age of Discovery Channel? He is only one of the greatest stylist in contemporary non-fiction. But 'style' is the wrong word, he is more a strategist, someone who follows a system that works so perfectly and that is set up so frictionless that it disappears behind the story. It's all system and no personal glory. Sometimes the system gives him a little time, when he gives the reader a breath of space to catch up and then he will make an 'action' like a football player will submit himself to a positional system and only when he has some time waiting for other players to take their positions he will show he can play with an unexpected arty move. 

McPhee is a strategist, and looking for a snooker equivalent he is like Mark Selby: a player who pots like the best but will never forget to lock up a yellow or a brown near the cushion just in case. Watching Selby can sometimes be a bit boring and so is reading McPhee, but that is always down to a failure on the side of the spectator/reader to enter in the right frame of mind. McPhee doesn't do quick fixes, he is all arches across arches, roundabouts hidden in roundabouts.

Currently I am reading his book about the chad. It is about fishing. I like it: that is how good he is.

John McPhee on Structure. Here are the final paragraphs they show you exactly what I mean.
Where to end a piece? As noted above, I usually know from the outset what the last line will be. In 1982, I was walking around in the Alps with a patrol of Swiss soldiers. We had been together three weeks and were plenty compatible. Straying off limits, not for the first time, we went into a restaurant called Restaurant. Military exercises were going on involving mortars and artillery up and down the Rhone Valley, above which the cantilevered Restaurant was fourteen hundred feet high. The soldiers had a two-way radio with which to receive orders, be given information, or report intelligence to the Command Post. They stirred their fondue with its antenna. They sent coded messages to the Command Post: “A PEASANT IN OBERWALD HAS SEEN FOUR ARMORED CARS COMING OUT OF ST. NIKLAUS AND HEADING FOR THE VALLEY.” More fondue, then this: “TWO COMPANIES OF ENEMY MOTORIZED FUSILIERS HAVE REACHED RARON. ABOUT FIFTEEN ARMORED VEHICLES HAVE BEEN DESTROYED.” And later this: “AN ATOMIC BOMB OF PETITE SIZE HAS BEEN DROPPED ON SIERRE. OUR BARRICADES AT VISP STILL HOLD. THE BRIDGES OF GRENGIOLS ARE SECURE. WE ARE IN CONTACT WITH THE ENEMY.” 

Setting down a pencil and returning to the fondue, I said to myself, “There is my ending.” The petite A-bomb was a gift to structure. Ending pieces is difficult, and usable endings are difficult to come by. It’s nice when they just appear in appropriate places and times.
After running aground, the river pilot Mel Adams said, “When you write all this down, my name is Tom Armstrong.”

William Shawn once told me that my pieces were a little strange because they seemed to have three or four endings. That surely is a result of preoccupation with structure. In any case, it may have led to an experience I have sometimes had in the struggle for satisfaction at the end.
Look back upstream. If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that. You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there, that you were finished before you thought you were. 

People often ask how I know when I’m done—not just when I’ve come to the end, but in all the drafts and revisions and substitutions of one word for another how do I know there is no more to do? When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.

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