No, it’s not a profile of McPhee. Or even by him. We’re cheating today, but it’s a worthwhile skirting of protocol. This comes from an excerpt of a Paris Review interview with McPhee. Here’s how to get started:
First thing I do is transcribe my notes. This is not an altogether mindless process. You’re copying your notes, and you get ideas. You get ideas for structure. You get ideas for wording, phraseologies. As I’m typing, if something crosses my mind I flip it in there. When I’m done, certain ideas have accrued and have been added to it, like iron filings drawn to a magnet.
And so now you’ve got piles of stuff on the table, unlike a fiction writer. A fiction writer doesn’t have this at all. A fiction writer is feeling her way, feeling her way—it’s much more of a trial-and-error, exploratory thing. With nonfiction, you’ve got your material, and what you’re trying to do is tell it as a story in a way that doesn’t violate fact, but at the same time is structured and presented in a way that makes it interesting to read.
I always say to my classes that it’s analogous to cooking a dinner. You go to the store and you buy a lot of things. You bring them home and you put them on the kitchen counter, and that’s what you’re going to make your dinner out of. If you’ve got a red pepper over here—it’s not a tomato. You’ve got to deal with what you’ve got. You don’t have an ideal collection of material every time out.