Reverse Engineering John McPhee

I’ve never met John McPhee, but he’s always been lurking around my office. I’ve got a number of his books, and I always keep an eye out for his latest piece in the New Yorker. I can’t count the number of times reading a few lines of his stuff helped get me revved up again for writing.

Recently, Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic invited me to participate in a Neiman Storyboard series called “Why’s This So Good?” Writers pick out a good piece of long-form journalism and try to figure out what makes it so. Having just revisited out McPhee’s sprawling 1987 epic on engineering the Mississippi, “Atchafalaya,” I chose it for my object of study. Here’s my take. And, if you have a free moment to quaff 28,000 words, here’s McPhee’s piece.

3 thoughts on “Reverse Engineering John McPhee

  1. Really lovely, thanks for sharing your piece. I particularly liked the bit about shaving away (or not) at a piece of writing one cell phone screen at a time. And I totally agree about finding McPhee’s writing inspiring. When I took a writing class way back in college, my teacher Barry Farrell was friends with McPhee and had gotten a hold of a manuscript that McPhee’s revisions were written all over in longhand, and he gave us all copies. I have searched and searched for it over the years but seem to have lost it, much to my regret. I do remember that it was absolutely full of words crossed out and added in, so it was a wonderful lesson in how even, maybe especially, the truly great authors revise and revise.

    Did you see the interview with McPhee in the Paris Review? Readers might be interested:

  2. Thanks for the link to your excellent piece, and thanks even more to the link to “Atchafalaya”. Really fantastic stuff, maybe more so with Katrina framing our hindsight.

  3. I was the dirty kid mentioned in john mcphees January 74 artical , people if the pine barons . Just wanted you to know. I tried to get in touch with john mcphee with no luck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *