The eight essays in Draft No. 4 were all originally published in The New Yorker (albeit in slightly different form), so I think I’ve read them all before. I remembered some of them more vividly than others, though, and they were all satisfying to read in book form. They’re all, as the book’s subtitle puts it, essays “on the writing process,” and many refer heavily to McPhee’s other work, which I found pretty fun: I liked being reminded of stuff of his that I’ve read and liked (like Oranges) and I also enjoyed being reminded of stuff of his I haven’t read yet but would like to (like Uncommon Carriers).

McPhee writes narrative nonfiction/creative nonfiction, and has taught a course on it at Princeton for decades, and these essays are full of his thoughts and advice on various aspects of doing that kind of writing. In “Progression” he writes about how one piece can lead, unexpectedly, to another, using the example of how a double profile of two tennis players ended up leading to his book Encounters with the Archdruid, which in turn led to other pieces. He writes about chronological vs. thematic organization, and the uses of outlining, in “Structure,” which also includes a great digression on his compositional methods over the years, from a typewriter and scissors to custom-built macros for a text-editing program. (There’s also a great bit where he talks about visiting the creator of that text-editing program.) He writes about the various interactions he’s had as part of the magazine work he’s done, from New Yorker editors and fact-checkers he’s worked with to interview subjects he’s had. There’s a great piece about frames of reference, a piece about writers’ block and the revision process and finding one’s style, and a really pleasing final piece about selection and omission in writing, which ends with a perfect story of an encounter McPhee had with Eisenhower in 1950.

McPhee is really good at a lot of things, including beginnings and endings, and I loved the way so many of these pieces started or finished, from that Eisenhower story to the image of a backyard in summertime with a picnic table and an ash tree to a story about McPhee watching a movie about quarter horses (which was based on a piece he’d written) that concludes with the image of him “on the floor groping under the seat for nickels, dimes, and pennies” that had fallen from his pocket (16). I also was totally charmed by two moments of McPhee in the classroom: in one piece, he visits his granddaughter’s English class (she’s a senior in high school at the time) to check the frames of reference in a piece he’s written: he reproduces the list of things he asked about, with the number of students who knew what each was. And in another piece, he talks about his experience of cutting lines from his work when he was a writer for Time magazine, and then about assigning this same task to his students, telling them to use both their own work and specific famous texts.

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