John McPhee won the undying allegiance of many of my generation of geologists by getting away with writing 720 riveting pages about geology and publishing them over twelve years as a series in the New Yorker. Farrar, Straus and Giroux later published the essays in book form as Annals of the Former World, for which McPhee was awarded a Pulitzer.
Although I’ve never met McPhee in person, during my years as a researcher I have met geologists who know him. Kathy Cashman, who now holds an endowed chair at the university of Bristol, taught for a while at Princeton, where McPhee has worked for more than four decades. Kathy told me that every year, McPhee gave a talk to the Princeton geology department. Then she chuckled.
During his most recent such talk, she said, he had read to the audience a list of his favorite geology terms; perhaps subnivean, sussultatory, hyaloclastite, or feldspathic litharenite (a type of sandstone whose name has a delightful anapestic rhythm). Apparently he didn’t include my own favorites, quaquaversal vergence (referring to the orientation of rock layers that come together toward a center) and palinspastic (a type of geologic map showing past rock configurations). Cashman said you could tell the audience scientists’ specialties by which words didn’t trigger laughter: the terms that were just everyday vocabulary to them but hilarious to everyone else.
For all of his verbal virtuosity, McPhee confesses that he gets stuck—and not only that, his writer daughters do as well. In his recent craft book, Draft No. 4 (based on his New Yorker article of the same name), he says that when his older daughter Jenny was a fresh college graduate, she called him one evening, miserable because she could simply not generate any words. “Who am I kidding?” Jenny asked about her desire to be a writer. Her younger sister Martha, like Jenny a well-published novelist, phones McPhee, he writes, “nine times a day to tell me that writing is impossible.” And of course his writing students arrive regularly with “howling cries” about how they cannot possibly produce another word.
Here’s what McPhee tells them, as if writing to a student named Joel:
Dear Joel: You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do?
You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.
I’ve been working for what feels like forever on an essay about a topic I’m passionate about. For long months, I felt completely stuck. Not being able to write about something I loved so much was incredibly frustrating, and I began to doubt myself as a writer.
I wondered how long “forever” actually was, so I checked; the first related file is dated one year ago yesterday. But the piece is based on a blog post I wrote back in 2013, so its seed has been lying dormant for years, waiting for its soil to be rendered fertile by some mysterious confluence of light and soft Seattle drizzle and an earthworm taking a particular path through earthy granules of rocks long disaggregated.
But I do remember how the sprouted seed finally poked through the ground one day. I had gotten so utterly tired of looking at the same old words in the same old draft, twiddling around unproductively rearranging them in hopes of generating some new energy that could drive the green fuse finally upward again.
Then an idea fluttered gently onto my shoulder. I simply started a new file for the new material, which I called “Ending.” I should have named it “Bear.” No old leaden sentences weighing me down, no being dragged backward into stale editing. The blank page invited new words that turned into new ideas, and I worked happily, finishing the piece in six weeks.
McPhee’s book is called “Draft No. 4” for a good reason; Draft No. 1’s whole purpose is just to get words on the page, not to be “good.” (Anne Lamott memorably refers to the requisite “shi–y first draft.”) McPhee writes, “It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky, when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people…. If I enjoy anything in this process it is Draft No. 4.”
I realize in retrospect that part of my problem was being careful. I wanted to write a really good first draft (of course). But my freedom came when I released myself from that unreachable standard.
My father has always loved wordplay, and when as kids my brothers and I got ready to run around outside, he’d caution us not to “be careful,” but to keep bearful. And now I realize just how excellent his advice truly was.
I’ve submitted the new essay to several journals, so its fate is now in the hands of good editors who will guide its next incarnations. And it may come back home for replanting. But now I can turn my attention to seeing what kind of bear wants to be born next.
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Want to dig into nature writing in your own soil? The Burke Museum in Seattle is offering a one-day environmental writing program called “Inspire, Observe, Inhabit” on April 7, 2018. Not only will you get classroom instruction, but you’ll get to go into the field, the true home of nature writing. Instructors are Lynn Brunelle, Claudia Castro Luna, and Jonathan White, who’ve written books, essays, and poetry about nature in both urban and wilderness contexts. More details are available on the Burke’s website.
And while you’re there, you might ask them how to keep bearful.