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:
    http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5997/the-art-of-nonfiction-no-3-john-mcphee

  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.

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