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McPhee on writing: "Do it and see"

Author John McPhee talks with Lehigh students.

John McPhee, the prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of nearly 30 books of non-fiction, shared advice for aspiring writers and treated a capacity crowd to a rare reading of his own works when he came to Lehigh in late February.

McPhee told aspiring writers in the audience to flex all of their literary muscles to determine which genre best suits them.

"It's absolutely essential not to imagine what kind of a writer you'll be, but to actually do it and see,” he told a capacity crowd of students, faculty, and staff at Whitaker Lab Auditorium. “A person might be prone to one kind of writing over another, but should exercise all their abilities along the way. When I was 20 years old, I wrote very bad poetry, but I came to appreciate that.”

Those early experiences—along with some harsh criticism by his professors and editors—ultimately led McPhee to the non-fiction genre, where his vast, collective work was described by The New York Times as “a grand pointillist mural of our time.”

Over the course of a writing career that began in the 1960s, McPhee has distinguished himself as one of the most versatile non-fiction writers of his generation. His diverse range of interests inspired him to author books on topics as varied as a profile of then-Princeton University basketball star (and future U.S. senator and presidential aspirant) Bill Bradley to the role of shad fishing in America.

One of his most widely-read tomes, last year’s award-winning “Uncommon Carriers,” focused on the people who inhabit the freight transportation industry, including railroad and highway workers, and long-distance truck drivers. His eight years of research for that book introduced McPhee to a roster of colorful characters: hard-working, earnest and dedicated men and women who literally devoted their lives to a seldom-appreciated service.

One of them was the driver of an 18-wheel rig, who wrote to McPhee to invite him along on a cross-country trip hauling hazardous materials from North Carolina to Tacoma, Washington.

“When I went to meet him and climbed into the truck, we talked about the difference between my joining railroad workers on their job, and this experience,” McPhee told the crowd. “He turned to me and said, ‘I’m the only one here, and this might not work out.’ Well, I’ll just say this: I got out of the truck in Tacoma.”

McPhee’s account of the days-long journey was the subject of his first reading, which was sprinkled with anecdotes about the unforgettable experiences, including a recurring sighting of a bikini-wearing young woman in a Porsche convertible.

“Over the course of 3,190 miles, the driver used the air horn only four times,” he read. “Two of them were for her.”

His second reading was of 10 manuscript pages from “Chalk,” a short piece that will be published in The New Yorker magazine in early March. Following both readings, McPhee, a staff wirter at The New Yorker since 1965, took questions from the audience on topics that included writing experiences, the inspiration for his projects and his writing habits.


Waiting for inspiration

McPhee read from his works and talked about writing.

McPhee told the audience that he often squandered endless hours in his office on the campus of Princeton University, in a “fake Medieval turret,” while waiting for inspiration to strike.

“I’d try to write all day, and nothing happened,” he said. “Then, around noon, maybe I’d go work out. Panic would set in around 5 p.m, and—and this happened every day—I’d finally get going and do my best work. And if I got going, I’d just not stop until 2, 3 a.m.”

After a rare burst of productivity, he’d find himself useless during the ensuing days, which prompted him to adopt a more structured schedule of working only until 7 p.m. each evening.

“And now, no matter what, I stop at 7 p.m. each day, even if I’m in the middle of a sentence,” he says. “So I’m going to do that here. I’m just going to stop in mid-sentence.”

In introducing McPhee, History Professor Stephen Cutcliffe praised the writer’s “beautifully articulated sentences, his encyclopedia range of interests, his keen sense of humor and dry wit.”

Cutcliffe noted that the writer often shuns the spotlight and rarely grants interviews, and expressed the university’s gratitude for the “rare privilege of speaking with John McPhee.”

The reading was sponsored by the Friends of the Lehigh University Libraries, the Science, Technology, and Society program at Lehigh, and the Lehigh University Visiting Lecture Series.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Friday, March 02, 2007

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