Mommy Dearest vs. Writers Block (Like Godzilla vs. King Kong!)


Just finished John McPhee’s newest collection of essays, Draft No. 4, and though it’s not a writing advice book per se, it does contain its fair share of writerly wisdom, many of interest to poets. Here are some quotes from the book along with comments from the peanut gallery.

  • “Though a man be more prone and able for one kind of writing than another, yet he must exercise all.”

COMMENT: This is not McPhee, actually. It’s Ben Jonson. I agree, though admit I’ve been only writing poetry the past few years. Jonson must mean “in his lifetime,” then. No, really. The point is well taken. And I do dream of novels still. They wake me up.

  • “It takes as long as it takes.”

COMMENT: Also not McPhee, but his boss, New Yorker editor William Shawn. McPhee was amazed at how much time Shawn was giving to McPhee’s article as the New Yorker hurtled toward a deadline. Shawn’s coolness under pressure and unrelenting attention to revision and detail sent a message. Don’t rush. Too many writers want to be published more than they want to write–and writing is rewriting first, then doing it right (editing, proofing) second. Hold, hold, hold before you send!

  • This quote is advice McPhee mailed to a former student, Joel, who was making a living as a writer but claimed to be suffering writer’s block: “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 the 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. “

COMMENT: Brilliant! McPhee’s strategy is to tap into our natural tendency to complain, so why not complain about the project that’s blocking us? If you’re struggling with a poem, it works just as well. You write to Mom and go on and on about the imagery and the word choice you’re trying and before you know it, you’ll be trying new imagery with new words because, well, you’re one eloquent whiner, aren’t you?

  • “Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material–that much and no more.”

COMMENT: This is from the chapter called “Omission,” where McPhee reminds us that what we choose NOT to write (or choose to take out when revising) is often more important than what we put in. Amen, brother.

  • Michelangelo: “The more the marble wastes, the more the statue grows… Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

COMMENT: Also from “Omission.” For poets, the white page or monitor replaces “block of stone” and the word “poem” replaces “statue.” The more words on the cutting-room (reviser-room) floor, the better.

  • This quote is advice McPhee sent his daughter, Jenny, when she was a senior at Princeton High School suffering over a piece of writing in class: “Dear Jenny: The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something–anything–out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something–anything–as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again–top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version–it if did not exist–you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day–yes, while you sleep–but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.”

COMMENT: This, from the title essay, is where McPhee tells us that the lion’s share of time in writing goes to the awful first draft. Subsequent drafts go a bit smoother and faster, but only if you suffer through that all-important first draft. My only add would be “I wish” to the “Draft No. 4” part. I feel most of my poems go to “Draft No. 44.” What can I say? They’re attention hogs.

As for poets, too many claim “block” because they’re not brave enough to write a first draft. It’s garbage, they think. An embarrassment. But who’s going to read it? Only the author. And even if it’s three pages of garbage, there may be one twenty-dollar bill in the mix, accidentally thrown out with the overcooked chicken divan. Find it! Cash in! The nucleus of a poem is born!

It’s enough to make even Andrew Jackson smile.

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