I recently read a fascinating article from a 1991 issue of College Composition and Communication called “The Strange Case of the Queen-Post Truss: John McPhee on Writing and Reading” by Douglas Vipond and Russell Hunt. McPhee is well known as an essayist who has written extensively for The New Yorker and he has been a major influence in the genre of creative non-fiction.
The authors employed two unique methods to gather information from McPhee, both of which yielded in-depth, honest results. As Vipond and Hunt state, these methods illuminate “knowledge about [writing] choices and strategies that… often remains tacit” (201).
- Discourse-Based Interview: Essentially, the interviewer brings in writing samples from an author’s original text along with alternative, modified versions of that sample (often a sentence or two). Then, the interviewer asks the author if they’d substitute an alternative for the original; if not, then they are asked to explain the “writerly logic” of why they prefer the original.
- Probes: The interviewer brings in statements about an author’s work made by general readership. The interviewer can then use these comments as a springboard to reveal dynamics in the writer-reader relationship.
Throughout the interview, McPhee responded to a number of proposed alternatives and reader interpretations. Here are some my favorite quotes:
- “If you can find a specific, firm, and correct image, it’s always going to be better than a generality” (203).
- “But, actually, a touch is sometimes more helpful than a mallet stroke” (204) – on sentences that “carry a touch of humor.”
- “If you trust your writer you can appreciate something without knowing what it is” (204) – on some of his readers not knowing what a “queen-post truss” was.
- “These little affections, you don’t give them up” (206) – on picking up unusual phrases like “queen-post truss.”
McPhee also described some details about his research process for an essay he wrote on a forest that he discovered much later in life despite growing up nearby. In response to a reader’s comment that he used “too many facts” in the essay, McPhee asserts:
You know, I spent a week or so simply talking about this subject with people, and therefore had collected a great big hamperful of material about it. Then I turned around to do a piece of writing that would include what I thought was worth writing about, worth passing on, worth attempting to form into sentences and shape as a structure – an integral piece of writing. And then I turned to this reader and the reader said, “There are too many facts.” All I can say is, “Go get your own hamper.” (208).
Personally, I love that line: “Go get your own hamper.” Yes, it’s a witty shot fired at a random reader, but McPhee makes an excellent point. Writing is fundamentally a craft. Regardless of genre or purpose, when we write, our brains literally craft strings of symbols together to make some sort of message. Sometimes, that message misfires and the recipient misinterprets it or doesn’t apprehend it in the first place. Those moments can frustrate a writer, but McPhee realizes that the writer-reader relationship is always messy. In his view, as long as he crafts a piece that has been thoughtfully researched, weighed, and considered, then he’s doing his job as a writer.
Writing as “Rhetorical Hampers”
For me, that metaphor of the hamper is a great way to discuss my own writing process (and process in general). I realize that no matter how much stuff I throw in the hamper, there’ll always be a missing sock here or a lost shirt there. My hamper will never contain anything that can ever approximate “Truth” (with the capital T). So yes, I can accumulate a great deal of material, but it’s ultimately the “sorting and folding” of that material into intelligible thoughts that requires the most energy and determination. McPhee’s domestic metaphor seems less abrasive to me than another commonly uttered metaphor of writing as “refining raw material” that the industrial age imparted on composition. To me, refining makes a case that information is simply processed through a series of conveyer-belts on the assembly line. That writing is a linear, repetitive process that can be completed in eight hour shifts. The hamper analogy, instead, views writing in more realistic terms: writing as a process of going through various states of cleaning, drying, folding, arranging, sorting – but ultimately wearing.
Isn’t that what we do with knowledge all the time?