The New Yorker

2 posts

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.

Reading ‘The New Yorker’ Backwards


Sure, The New Yorker is eastern liberal elitist, but does that mean I can’t read it any way I want? Pricey at $8.99 (is that the “liberal elitist” part or the “eastern” part?), the magazine came my way free thanks to my daughter who renewed with the option to gift someone a subscription (she wrote in the name “Dear Old Dad”).

Besides, I live in Massachusetts, so blue it is one of two states (the other being Hawaii) to give Hillary (of all people) a clean sweep of its voting districts over You Know Who (of all…) in the recent “elections.”

Anyway, I read The New Yorker backwards all the time, if it’s all right with you. The beginning is ads, mail, and the tiny print of “Goings On About Town, ” which have little appeal to me because I’m allergic to New York City, for one, and I am neither “going on” nor “about town.” At least not that one.

There’s also “The Talk of the Town,” typically politics, typically about Trump or Trump-like sycophants or Trump-eted cabinet-seat-occupiers. I’ve reached the saturation point on this topic. As far as I’m concerned (and I’m apparently not), there’s nothing left to be said.

To the back, then! Reading New Yorkers from the back is an art form, kind of like the ungentle art of unlocking a cooked lobster (a shell game with many routes to victory, according to the experts). Let me give you an example. Today I received the Aug. 7 & 14 issue, covered with a devil-driven subway coming out of a tunnel marked “42 Street.” Cool (for something so hot, I mean).

I flipped to the back, ignored the last-page ads, and browsed the Cartoon Caption Contest. Ha-ha. Laymen readers are funny.

Flip. Now you’re at the back of an article. If there’s a cartoon, you read it. Sometimes “ha-ha” and sometimes “whatever.” This is the latter.

Flip. Ah! The beginning of the last piece. It’s the beloved BOOKS section! (Who says the best things are at the front of the line?) Called “Paper Trail,” it’s Dan Chiasson’s to-do about Susan Howe’s latest poetry collection.

Who’s Susan Howe? Oops. Lives in Massachusetts like me, yet I haven’t read her. That’s a “Go Directly to Jail” for me as a poet. Never heard of her, either, to be even more honest. Stay in jail an extra turn.

And what? She actually has a sister named Fanny who is ALSO a poet (and who I ALSO don’t know)? I concede this Monopoly game. But I read the piece beginning to end anyway to see if Howe’s new book (Debths) seems like my cuppa tea. I’m a coffee man, turns out. But I do love history, as Susan does. And Emerson and Thoreau and all things Boston (no allergies there), as she does.

Hmn. Put on “Think-About-It Shelf” and move on.

Flip. More BOOKS stuff! BONUS ROUND. “A Family Affair” by way of title, which is ironically accurate. The book review is about Tom Perrotta’s new novel Mrs. Fletcher, and it’s written by old virtual friend (Laura Miller) who used to hang at my old virtual haunt, And, once upon a time, back when I bothered with Monopoly, I read every Tom Perrotta book that came out. I long gave up that game, but it didn’t stop me from reading the wonderful Miller’s wonderful take on Perrotta’s latest to-do on eastern liberal elitist suburbia, start to finish. Good read, this. As for the book, I’ll slide it next to Howe’s on the “TAI” Shelf.

Flip. Middle of an article, but with the rapturous sidebar called “Briefly Noted.” Here I get to read three paragraph-length reviews of new books. They go down easy. Like Cheez-Its. The most interesting of the foursome is The Storied City by Charlie English because it’s about Timbuktu and a book is worth reading for that exotic reason alone. Timbuktu is one of those places you hear about but never read about. Correction possible!

Flip. Cartoon. Meh one. But little drawing of Trump as Gulliver on his back pinned by Lilliputians now unseen (perhaps eastern liberal elitists?). Big wet-mop of Cheetos hair projects from You Know Who’s alleged head.

Flip. Oh, too cool. Adam Gopnik’s “Critic at Large,” and he’s writing up a new book on Buddhism, Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True. Initial reaction: What a horrible title for a book! Second reaction: Ommmmmm.

Reading along (a “long,” actually, as this one is six pages), I discover that Gopnik is himself a “Buddhist.” (I put quotes around “Buddhists” because there are so many branches and so many interpretations within those branches that I’m not sure you can be “a” anymore, but it’s pretty to think so, as Hemingway–a non-Buddhist if ever there was one–once said.)

An interesting meditation (heh) on Buddhism, this article meanders into other Buddhism books by way of comparison, chiefly Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism. What does this mean? It means my TBR pile grows exponentially. It means I still don’t own a meditation pillow (or whatever). It means I learn a guy named Goldstein has meditation tapes that can be listened to for free on youtube dot data-digger. Note to self: Must check out Goldstein’s “calming, grumpy voice” on Gopnik’s suggestion.

Flip. “Times of Trouble,” Anthony Lane’s review of two movies (Detroit and Whose Streets?). Like Holden Caulfield sans the whining, I don’t go to movies. Er. “Film,” I think it’s called an eastern elitist enclaves.

Flip. Cartoon with Little Red Riding Hood and Big Bad Wolf making fun of Big Worse Wolf (read: technology), a sure-fire winner! Mid-article of some sort, by the way.

Flip.  More article and a cartoon. Chopin’s Funeral March allusions! Very funny in an eastern (European) liberal elitist way!

Flip. More article and lame cartoon on lame target: Congressmen.

Flip. Ah. No wonder so long. This is a short story. And the author is up-and-comer… oh, wait. It’s Don DeLillo taking up bandwidth. Sigh. I like to see promising newcomers in the big glossies, but the big glossies like to see tried-and-trues that make their blood look blue.  Thus, Don DeLillo. Whose books I can’t seem to read. Maybe a short, though? Eh. I’ll test the waters later, maybe. Or maybe not. Not all the sharks are tagged and tracked on-line.

Flip. Article and Don’t-Get-It cartoon. Small drawing of big red “Make America Great Again” hat spitting out Cheetos-colored hair. Themes, anyone?

Flip. A New Yorker poem! By Anne Carson! Do I know Anne Carson? I do not! Should I know Anne Carson? I should know everyone! Like Walt Whitman, my brain is everyone  and everything (just ask me).

Carson’s poem, “Clive Song,” is a winsome, conversational poem. Free verse. One giant stanza from Mars (or Tokyo Bay, maybe). There’s a new poetry editor on the beat, I understand. Paul Muldoon beat it. Is Anne Carson any relation to Rachel Carson, I wonder? Note to self: Check family tree of Anne. See if the tree grows in Brooklyn. Or some other eastern liberal elitist ‘hood.

Flip. “Sketchbook” by Luci Gutierrez called “Subway Substitutes.” Cute. And subways must be a “hot” topic in New York. I would think about this, but I might sneeze.

Flip. Article. Little cartoon of the Cheeto-in-Chief as Pinocchio, complete with Disneyesque shorts and vest and whopper wooden nose with branch growing out of it. Fake cartoon, the “president” (quotation marks are a marvelous thing) would call it, but still, cute in an eastern liberal elitist way. Geppetto would approve.

Flip. Oh, yeah. A long feature on Rachel Cusk, British novelist slash author of Outline and Transit, two books already between slices of cheese in my TBR sandwich. Did I mention my TBR sandwich? It’s tasty, needs a giant toothpick to hold it together, and leans left (like everything else in Massachusetts) due to its girth and height. I read this article start to finish before backing up anew….

And let me interrupt here because, at this point, I’ve written the longest post on this blog ever. At this point, too, I am the only reader of this post left.  And I’m only on p. 48 of The New Yorker, mind you, with much joy to go before I reach the start!

What does this say? It says back-to-front is the way to go–not with Agatha Christie mysteries, mind you, but certainly with New Yorkers. Probably it’s true of other periodicals as well.

Can books be read backwards as well? Can poetry collections? Open (to the back), says-a-me. Yes! Especially poetry collections (ignore that man named Billy Collins behind the curtain who says your best poems belong at the front of your collection).

Give it a go, then, why don’t you. When you get there, the Table of Contents will be well-earned and not just a little déjà vu.