Monday, February 13, 2012

Where Does He Get His Ideas?

Like so many New Yorker subscribers, I am always months behind. They pile up week by week, screaming their silent rebuke. Sometimes I hide them in a corner; rarely, I become defiant and throw them out without a glance of what I might miss. Keeping up with this magazine is the best (only?) reason I can think of for commuting to a job on the subway instead of just carrying my coffee upstairs in my pjs.

I’m glad the November 14, 2011 issue didn’t end up unseen and in the recycling. Yesterday I read an article by John McPhee, one of the greatest nonfiction writers around. In “Progression,” he discussed the evolution of many of his ideas, when he lets his subject matter dictate the structure of his piece, and the few times (just two in a very full career) he chose a structure and searched for a subject to fit it.

Many of us here have written about such matters already, but I find the topic endlessly fascinating. I thought I might pluck a few points from the article that could hopefully spur some conversation in the comments section from my fellow bloggers and some of our readers.

1. McPhee said he once listed all the pieces he had written in decades and realized that 90 percent of them were related to subjects he had been interested in before he went to college.

Is that true for you? I’m not sure it is for me. I really liked biology, but I’d never have predicted I would write so much about science. Is that because I was a young girl at a time when females considered other types of careers? Or is it that I didn’t understand then that there is a poetry in pure science that is as lyric as Shakespeare's?

2. McPhee said that his readers aren’t shy with suggestions, then noted these ideas are often closer to the readers’ passions than his own. Yet he did end up using two of their proposals.

Anybody here ever turn an suggested idea from a reader or a kid into a book?

3. McPhee mentioned that “new pieces can shoot up from other pieces, pursuing connections that run through the ground like rhizomes.”

I bet so many of us have written books or articles this way. I’ve already talked about one of mine in an earlier post ( Have you met a minor character while researching one story who demanded a book of his or her own? Or turned an idea on its ear for another go-round?

4. And finally, what about McPhee’s ultimately successful attempt to tame a potentially disastrous idea: trying to find the right subject to fit within a pre-set structure. His result turned out to be the classic Encounters with the Archdruid.

Anybody else give this a try?


Deborah Heiligman said...

Susan, you will probably also love this interview with him, in which he talks a lot about nonfiction and structure. I love this piece and have referred to it before on I.N.K. But I think it's worth pointing out again. He is a true nonfiction master, a very kind man, and a terrific teacher.
Here's the link:

matt jacob said...

ever since i began writing weekly posts i keep thinking about a column my friend recently wrote where the headline was "I Got Nothing." which is how i feel an hour after each publish.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

#3 - one book leading to another thanks to collateral research - has happened to me several times.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting post. Both in college and before college I was a history/cultures/art history buff. However, I have two boys who love all things science. So far, my nonfiction manuscripts have have been science-focused. I hope someday to get back to art and history, but right now, so many of my inspirations come from my children.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Deb--Thanks so much for the gift of that interview. I don't know how I missed it the first time you blogged about it. I'm going to try his index card/structure idea next time I have an occasion to need it.

Matt--I certainly understand the "I got nothing" feeling, but better to have it after a post than before.

Gretchen--so is there any of those examples you mentioned where you ended up liking the second book better than the first?

Creating--when my kids were younger I found that nurturing their interests took me into places I wouldn't have normally gone. Some have remained, but like you said you hoped will happen, I reverted back to my own as well. So have heart!