I’ve been revisiting one of my very favorite writers, John McPhee. How can I count the ways I love McPhee? His astonishing style, his engaging voice, his eclectic subject matter, his amazing story structure, his mind-boggling erudition, his sense of humor…it goes on and on.
One of the things I especially love about John McPhee is the hefty, dense factual content of his prose. To say you can’t read a McPhee piece without learning something is to understate grossly. Truth to tell, you can’t read a McPhee piece without learning something in almost every sentence.
Some of it is observed fact:
Carol [dissecting a snapping turtle killed by a car]…talked to the dead turtle, soothingly, reassuringly, nurse to patient, doctor to child, and when she reached in under the plastron and found an ovary, she shifted genders with a grunt of surprise. She pulled out some globate yellow fat and tossed it into the pond. Hundreds of mosquito fish came darting through the water, sank their teeth, shook their heads, worried the fat. Carol began to move fat from the turtle’s body. The eggs were like ping-balls in size, shape, and color, and how they all fitted into the turtle was more than I could comprehend, for there were fifty-six of them in there, fully finished, and a number that had not quite taken their ultimate form. (John McPhee, Travels in Georgia, in The John McPhee Reader)
In four sentences we learn snapping turtles contain ball-shaped chunks of yellow fat, that mosquitofish will eat flesh (or at least free handouts of turtle fat), that snapping turtle eggs are as big as ping-pong balls, that a mature female can lay upwards of 56 of them, and that this Carol knows how to dissect a large, hard-shelled reptile.
His prose is informed as much by research as by observation, though:
The purpose of such projects [we’re viewing a type of reclamation project called stream channelization] was to anticipate and eliminate floods, to drain swamps, to increase cropland, to channel water toward freshly created reservoirs serving and attracting new industries and new housing developments. Water sports would flourish on the new reservoirs, hatchery fish would proliferate below the surface: new pulastions in the life of the rural South. The Soil Conservation Service was annually spending about fifteen million dollars on stream-channelization projects, providing among other things, newly arable land to farmers who already had land in the Soil Bank. The Department of Agriculture could not do enough for the Southern farmer, whose only problem was bookkeeping. He got money for keeping his front forty idle. His bottomland went up in value when the swamps were drained, and then more money came for not farming the drained land. Years earlier, when a conservationist had been someone who plowed land along natural contours, the Soil Conservation Service had been the epicenter of the conservation movement, decorated for its victories over erosion of the land. Now, to a new generation that had discovered ecology, the SCS was the enemy. Its drainage programs tampered with river mechanics, upsetting the relationships between bass and otter, frog and owl. The Soil Conservation Service had grown over the years into a bureau of fifteen thousand people, and all the way down at the working point, the cutting edge of things, was Chap Causey, in the cab of his American dragline, hearing nohting but the pounding of his big Jimmy diesel while he eliminated a river, eradicated a swamp. (John McPhee, “Travels in Georgia”)
In ten sentences, we learn the following:
- Stream channelization is a flood control technique.
- It’s used to drain swamps.
- It’s used to increase cropland
- It’s used to channel water into reservoirs.
- It benefits sporting, and real estate development industries.
- By 1975 (when “Travels in Georgia” was published), the Soil Conservation Service was spending $15 million a year on stream channelization.
- The supposed benefits of the projects were often redundant and served to profit those who were already plenty affluent and who had already acquired sufficient wealth through government programs.
- Southern farmers benefited from government support projects by collecting money to leave land idle.
- Southern farmers benefited from soil channelization when swamp draining enhanced the value of their bottomland.
- Southern farmers further benefited by collecting federal dollars to leave this newly valuable bottomland fallow.
- The SCS used to be one of the nation’s premier conservation agencies, thanks to programs to prevent soil erosion.
- By 1975, the SCS had built a reputation for harming the environment, largely because of its drainage programs.
- Drainage projects harm ecological balances such as those involving bass and otters and frogs and owls.
- By 1975, the SCS employed 15,000 people.
- The operator of the American (brand name) dragline crane engaged in the project at hand was named Chap Causey.
- The engine of an American dragline crane runs on diesel.
- The crane’s engine was made by GMC.
Think of that: 17 hard facts in 10 sentences. That’s almost 2 facts per sentence, and it’s not even one of McPhee’s true tours de force.
Being a writer of what today we call creative nonfiction, McPhee uses observed fact (and sometimes researched fact) for literary as well as journalistic purposes. To paint a setting, for example:
A stop for a D.O.R. [“dead on road”] always brought the landscape into detailed focus. Pitch coming out of a pine. Clustered sows behind a fence. An automobile wrapped in vines. A mailbox. “Donald Foskey.” His home. Beyond the mailbox, a set of cinder blocks and on the cinder blocks a mobile home. (“Travels in Georgia”)
Or to perform a deft, swift characterization:
…Carol turned on the radio and moved the dial. If she could find some Johnny Cash, it would elevate her day. Some Johnny Cash was not hard to find in the airwaves of Georgia. There he was now, resonantly singing about his Mississippi Delta land, where, on a sharecropping farm, he grew up. Carol smiled and closed her eyes. In her ears — pierced ears — were gold maple leaves that seemed to move under the influence of the music.
Facts — accurate facts, astutely observed details — are the heart of journalism, but they’re also the heart of any writing, fiction, essay, and even poetry included. You doubt it? Check out, for example, a random passage from Alice Munro:
That was the time of their being women together. Home permanents were tried on Juliet’s stubborn fine hair, dressmaking sessions produced the outfits like nobody else’s, suppers were peanut-butter-tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches on the evenings Sam stayed late for a school meeting. Stories were told and retold about Sara’s boyfriends and girlfriends, the jokes they played and the fun they had, in the days when Sara was a schoolteacher too, before her heart got too bad. Stories from the time before that, when she lay in bed with rheumatic fever and had the imaginary friends Rollo and Maxine who solved mysteries, even murders, like the characters in certain children’s books. Glimpses of Sam’s besotted courtship, disasters with the borrowed car, the time he showed up at Sara’s door disguised as a tramp. (Alice Munro, “Soon,” in Runaway)
- Juliet and Sara were close friends.
- Juliet has fine hair.
- They tried to permanent it.
- They ate awful food when one of them didn’t have to cook for a man.
- They related stories from their lives.
- Sara was once a schoolteacher.
- Sara had a bad heart.
- Sara’s heart trouble stemmed from rheumatic fever.
- Sara’s rheumatic fever probably occurred when she was a child.
- Sam drinks, or possibly he’s just clumsy
- Sam got into some sort of trouble with a borrowed car.
- Sam has done some odd things.
Twelve facts in five sentences. Not bad!
It’s the details that allow the reader to visualize, understand, and absorb your message. So facts, whether they come from research or observation (and the imagined facts of the fiction writer or poet are based on observation and experience) are indispensable. Writing is a process of reporting research.
Every writer needs facts. Lots of facts.
Get them. Don’t neglect them!