For example, the importance of using an outline, from the interview with Mr. McPhee by Peter Hessler, “The Art of Nonfiction No. 3”:
Where did this method come from?
It goes back to Olive McKee at Princeton High School, and the structural outline that we had to have before doing any piece of writing. It came up again when I worked at Time. My first cover story just floored me. It was five thousand words, and I really struggled with the mass of material. I was pretty unhappy. It was just a mess—a mess of paper, I didn’t know where anything was. So I went back to Olive McKee and the outline, sorting through this matrix of material, separating it into components and dealing with one component at a time.
Is there ever a risk of it becoming too mechanical?
It sounds very mechanical, but the effect is the exact opposite. What it does is free you to write. It liberates you to write. You’ve got all the notes there; you come in in the morning and you read through what you’re going to try to write, and there’s not that much to read. You’re not worried about the other ninety-five percent, it’s off in a folder somewhere. It’s you and the keyboard. You get away from the mechanics through this mechanical means. The spontaneity comes in the writing, the phraseology, the telling of the story—after you’ve put all this stuff aside. You can read through those relevant notes in a relatively short period of time, and you know that’s what you want to be covering.
Read the rest of the interview here.
Also in the Spring issue, Ray Bradbury interviewed on the Art of Fiction, by Sam Weller, from which,
You’re self-educated, aren’t you?
Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?
I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.
You have said that you don’t believe in going to college to learn to write. Why is that?
You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.
And don’t miss the Review’s interview index, with gems from 1953 to the present.
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Books by John McPhee, wonderful wonderful stuff and the perfect living books to include in your home school studies with older children, especially for science. If you have to choose only one, make it Annals of the Former World, Mr. McPhee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of four books on the geological history of North America, published in a single volume in 1998.