The Strange Case of the Queen-Post Truss:
John McPhee on Writing and Reading
[as published in College Composition and Communication 42: 2 (May 1991), 200-210]
During the last twenty years or so, within the shadow of the so-called New journalism and the nonfiction novel, a neglected genre of writing has taken on new life. Its practitioners write about traditionally "journalistic" subjects verifiable facts of nature, history, society -- but they do so with such grace that their efforts have been called "literary journalism," "the literature of fact," or "aesthetic nonfictional prose" (Schuster). Reminding us that this form has "a long and honorable history in our literature" (names such as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, George Orwell, and James Agee come to mind), Ronald Weber proposes the useful term "literary nonfiction" (1).
There are many outstanding contemporary writers of literary nonfiction, but perhaps the most widely admired is John McPhee. McPhee's books, says William L. Howarth, have "stretched the artistic dimensions of reportage" (vii). Weber, discussing Coming into the Country, writes of McPhee's ability "to endow fact with both the coherence and the odd resonance that belong to a work of art" (121). Elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1988, McPhee to date has published more than twenty books, on what he modestly calls "a highly miscellaneous set of topics": the Swiss army, birchbark canoes, oranges, nuclear weapons, geology, and many others. Almost all his work appears first in The New Yorker, with which he has been associated since 1965.
Although we were both long-time McPhee readers, our immediate interest derived from using one of his writings in a recent study of reading (Vipond; Hunt, Jewett, and Reither). The text was "In Virgin Forest," published in "The Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker. "In Virgin Forest" concerns Hutcheson Memorial Forest, 65 acres of protected woodland near New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Other published interviews with McPhee, such as those of journalists Dennis Drabelle and Stephen Singular, are relatively unstructured, employing conventional question-and-answer formats. In contrast, we used the same methods we had used previously with the readers in our study: a "discourse-based" interview and an interview based on what we call "probes."
Discourse-Bared Interview. This is a technique developed by Lee Odell and Dixie Goswami (see also Odell, Goswami, and Herrington) to study writing in nonacademic settings. The investigator takes a piece of writing, changes certain words or sentences, then offers these alternatives to the writer along with the original version. The writer is asked, "Would you be willing to substitute one of these alternatives for your original?" Normally the writer is not eager to make the substitution, and in explaining the reasons, reveals a good deal of knowledge about choices and strategies -- knowledge that, with other investigative methods, often remains tacit.
Similarly, we took three short excerpts from "In Virgin Forest" and made them either less "literary" (for example, by removing a metaphor) or less factual (by changing a detail). For each set of alternatives McPhee was asked whether it would make a difference if one of the alternatives were substituted for his original. The term "queen-post trusses" led to an especially engaging discussion of some constraints in writing literary nonfiction, as well as the nature of his collaboration with fact-checkers at The New Yorker.
Probes. Probes are statements about the work made by other readers. Readers (or writers) are asked whether they agree or disagree and invited to explain their reasons. Here the probes were especially useful because they stimulated discussion of the kinds of response McPhee hopes to receive from his readers.
Thus the discourse-based interview focused attention on particular choices McPhee made, whereas the probes led to a more general discussion of the writer-reader relationship. The two methods together afford an illuminating glimpse of an important writer and reader at work. (2)
Part One: Discourse-Based Interview
We began by presenting McPhee with the first set of alternatives. In every case, (A) is McPhee's original; (B) and (C) are our alternatives.
|(A)||In 1981, gypsy moths tore off the canopy, and sunlight sprayed the floor.|
|(B)||In 1981, an invasion of gypsy moths ate much of the leaf cover and allowed sunlight to spray the floor.|
|(C)||An infestation of gypsy moths tore off the canopy in 1981, allowing sunlight onto the forest floor.|
McPhee: The ultimate thing is that sunlight -- which in this twilight-at-noon world was unusual, certainly -- is there in a great amount, and it's quite a quick thing in terms of time. It all happens in a few days. So "the gypsy moths tore off the canopy" seems a reasonable hyperbole to employ in order to suggest to a reader that the sun got in there rapidly and changed the world below. As for (C), if something's going to tear off the canopy, it's the gypsy moths, and "infestation" is in the way. You're either going to be very careful and .say, "an infestation of gypsy moths came along, they eat leaves, they . . . " and so on and so forth, or you're going to stay with the picture of tearing something off, in which case you wouldn't want to say "infestation," I don't think. As for "allowing sunlight onto the forest floor," that sounds like a pass to go to the boys' room or something. There's a missing infinitive there, anyway. It just doesn't sound very good in all sorts of ways.
What difference would those things make to the way a reader would understand what you were writing, or feel about what you were writing?
McPhee: I'm not sure I think that way. In other words, as I am sitting composing a sentence, my primary thought is not imagining a reader, and whether the reader is grasping this. I think that what I'm doing is trying to put it in the way that seems most effective to me. Not that I'm "writing for myself," in that old cliche, but since I have nothing to go on but what's in my own head -- in terms of selection of things that I'm going to set on the paper, and all the choices that go with that -- I listen to the sentence until I both hear it and see it as something that I want. And it would be a given that a person reading it would share the effect that the sentence has earlier had on me. It's one of the things that happens over and over again: I'll have a moment such as when this man, Edmund Stiles, suggested that this had happened, and I was standing there. I could see the opening in the sky and then imagine it sealed off. What I'm trying to do is to reproduce on paper, days or months later, the effect that had on me.
||More recently, he had studied the foraging strategies of insects and the symbiotic relationships of berries and migratory birds. In other words, he was a zoologist and a botanist, too.|
|(B)||More recently, he had studied both zoology and botany.|
||More recently, he had studied the influence of forest vegetation on the song patterns of finches. In other words, he was a zoologist and a botanist, too.|
McPhee: "He had studied both zoology and botany," period, is a little crimped. It doesn't do much except name a couple of disciplines in which one can get a PhD. The momentum of this piece has to do with a virgin forest in New Jersey that he studied. The point under consideration is that an ideal person to study a pristine forest would be a person who could deal with more than the vegetation, because a forest is animal as well as vegetable. It's a very key point. "More recently, he had studied both zoology and botany" doesn't miss that point -- and I'm not at all saying that I want to take the reader by the hand and lead the reader too much -- but the reader deserves more than that here, deserves what it is that the man is up to so that you really see him working at it: the insects, the berries, the birds. In other words, the forest contains them, too. I don't think I was attempting to accomplish anything more than to establish, one, the credentials of this person, the nature of his background, and two, the fact -- I would hope it would be lying there for anybody to see that the zoology and the botany were both intensely relevant to a forest. Not to silviculture, but to a forest.
As for (C), he didn't study the song patterns of finches -- he isn't Darwin! But at any rate, let's say that there are finches in this forest. Let's say that in some way or other the vegetation would influence their song patterns, which indeed it probably would, it's not a whole lot different from the berries and the birds and the foraging strategies of insects. I don't see that there's a lot to choose there. It's an example that's similar.
||Old white oaks are found in few places, because they had a tendency to become bowsprits, barrel staves, and queen-post trusses.|
|(B)||Old white oaks are rare because people tended to use them for things like bowsprits, barrel staves, and queen-post trusses.|
|(C)||Old white oaks are found in few places because they were so valuable as lumber.|
McPhee: This was an interesting one. That sentence was extensively rewritten as a result of the work of The New Yorker magazine's checking department, on which I lean strongly. In the final days or weeks before a piece is published, a person with a lot of experience and training goes through every bit of it, not looking at or caring about my own research, just not believing anything, and because of his or her experience thinking of things to call people about that you'd never believe -- just getting an awful lot of cinders off the surface of the piece. It's a wonderful relationship, and as a factual writer I appreciate it a great deal.
Michelle Preston checked this piece. The original sentence had to do with Queen Anne furniture or something like that. What I imagined was the white oaks turning into a certain celebrated form of colonial furniture, right? Turned out they didn't make 'em out of oak. Turned out that if a person at Winterthur were to pick this up they would laugh and gag and fall on the floor and roll around! That's what the checking department is all about. The line was funny, it was effective, in all respects it was a good line, but one: It was wrong. So I fixed it. I just said, let's do this: Let's say that the "old white oaks are found in few places because they had a tendency to become bowsprits, barrel staves, and queen-post trusses." And you can believe that they did! Michelle checked all that as well.
There isn't much life in (C). If you can find a specific, firm, and correct image, it's always going to be better than a generality, and hence I tend, for example, to put in trade names and company names and, in an instance like this, the names of wood products instead of a general word like "lumber." You'd say "Sony" instead of "tape recorder" if the context made it clear you meant to say tape recorder. It's not because you're on the take from Sony, it's because the image, at least to this writer or reader, strikes a clearer note. So that's why I would not choose to say "because they were so valuable as lumber," which indeed they were. And then (B) seems to be sort of in the middle. (A) carries a touch of humor -- "they had a tendency to become" -- and that touch disappears in "people tended to use them for."
The touch of humor is something you don't want to stretch for. It has to be right. It has to be within some kind of framework -- boundaries, banks of the stream, something that accompanies you through a piece -- and if you are trying too hard for it you can mess up your piece. But where it's unstrained and spontaneous it obviously gives loft to a piece of writing that the piece of writing might not otherwise have. And this is the smallest of touches: you will not get hired by Johnny Carson to write lines on the basis of one like this. But, actually, a touch is sometimes more helpful than a mallet stroke.
I can't quite analyze the humor in "they had a tendency to become," but the things seem to be doing it on their own, you see. Not really, not really. But when you say "they were so valuable as lumber" or "people tended to use them for this and that," you're reading economic geography, you're reading your fourth-grade textbook about the natural products of Arkansas, and in (A), you aren't. I'm not attempting to say that simply by not sounding like a fourth-grade textbook you can become a writer. It's hard for me to analyze that one.
Our readers had a fair bit to say about those three examples that you came up with after you jettisoned the chair, but it seems that nobody involved knew what a queen-post truss was. The interviewer didn't, and when a reader would ask, he would give them an erroneous explanation.
McPhee: I would say right back that in a certain sense it doesn't matter, because they're such wonderful words -- "queen-post trusses" -- and the context will tell you that they mean something. If you trust your writer you can appreciate something without knowing what it is. Beyond that, one might ask: Is it that you don't know what a "queen-post" truss is or that you don't know what a "truss" is? "Bowsprit," too, could give people trouble. What's a "bowsprit"?
"Barrel staves" are probably wider in their acceptance in this context than the other two, which raises a very interesting theme that one could go on about at great length: a writer, in my view, is the less creative partner than the reader, and 97% (or whatever you want to say) of the creativity that's going on in a piece of writing is being done by the reader. A writer is tossing out the things with which the reader makes pictures in the mind. The pictures depend, of course, on the frame of reference of the reader. With almost every word chosen, a writer can't be sure whether it is effective -- because of what it may or may not mean to a reader. So you're making these decisions all the time. You could find people to whom practically anything is meaningless. An orange in Thailand: the color doesn't mean anything, because oranges never turn orange in Thailand, it never gets cold enough. They ripen, but they don't turn orange. Our concept of orangeness just wouldn't exist there, so don't try to use that in your poems that are published in Bangkok! And so it goes around. If I mention things like "pheasants," "corn shocks," "dried grass," and so forth, you get a picture of autumn that is vastly larger than those few little words.
"Queen-post trusses" has been really powerful in getting readers to talk, some readers, anyway --
McPhee: Why didn't I say "king-post trusses"? There are two kinds: king-post and queen-post trusses. You know what they are? Go into a building where the rafters are exposed, and you'll see all these cross-pieces that look like Ws or something. I can't even go much further than this, but one configuration is a king-post truss and another is a queen-post truss, and the whole rig -- which looks like the cross-section of a wing of an airplane is the truss.
What one reader said was, "I don't know what the hell it is, but if I was a tree I wouldn't mind being a queen-post truss." But it was Michelle who came up with --
McPhee: She didn't come up with these things, she just told me the chair was wrong. I came up with the list.
The thing I'd like to know is when you were coming up with the list, you stopped and said, "Okay, I have to make some kind of decision."
McPhee: Time is short.
Right. What alternatives did you consider?
McPhee: I just ran through my head thinking of things that oaks might have been used for and then she went out and checked that, and it makes sense for these things to have been used in that way. I think -- you would have to ask her. No, wait a minute, it's beginning to come back, maybe Michelle did come up with some of these. But I think I said, "We've got to get as many things as we can that the white oaks were used for, and then pick three. " I think I remember that. I think she was more contributive than I'm saying. The two of us are both there with x hours to go before the thing is going to be published.
The bowsprits are also interesting. If I were rewriting this experiment now I might give another list of three objects. I would say, let me find three objects that are pretty workaday, three objects that were more like barrel staves than like bowsprits or queen-post trusses.
McPhee: The exotic in the queen-post truss . . . exotic language is of value. A queen-post truss is great just because of the sound of the words and what they call to mind. The "queen," the "truss" -- the ramifications in everything. I did a profile of a National Park Service director who, earlier, had supervised the project that built the St. Louis arch. The visitor's center under the arch is named for him: The George B. Hartzog Visitor Center. Well, about eighteen years ago I sat around George Hartzog's office for a month or so. There was a big fire at Wolf Trap Farm, which the Park Service was running, and George made some remark about "queen-post trusses all over the ground." I've forgotten what it was right now, but I remember picking that up, and it's in the profile of George Hartzog; you will find the queen-post trusses there. These little affections, you don't give them up. But you could make a list as long as your arm, "toothpicks" and things you wouldn't --
That's right, would you accept "toothpicks" instead of "bowsprits"?
McPhee: Not over a queen-post truss!
How about over a bowsprit?
McPhee: Not over a bowsprit. Again, what are you doing but dealing with your own affection for language, your own background? When I was a little kid I went to a sailing camp up near Cape Cod. They had these old schooners around with bowsprits -- it's a word that has been kicking around in my own mind from six years old and it sometimes pops up. And the queen-post trusses are definitely out of the George Hartzog piece. I don't think I knew what a queen-post truss was before that.
It's a pretty subjective thing. A guy in The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed is scared as hell that his wonderful invention is going to be stolen by some other company. He's all nervous about it, and he imagines behind every tree a reporter from some paper, who will reveal his secret. So once you've set up something like that, saying "behind every tree is a reporter," you can reel off a list of papers that such a reporter might represent. This is nonfiction writing, but if you're just giving examples of the names of newspapers you can use any paper you wish; and so, in that instance, the papers are things like the queen-post trusses. You can say the New Orleans Times-Picayune if you want. What a wonderful name. So there are several papers in the list and some, particularly that one, are chosen just because of the sounds of the words. I had an editor, Robert Bingham, one of the greatest I ever met. He was my editor for sixteen years. He didn't change things without talking to me but when that list of newspapers came along, he put in the name of his hometown paper -- The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Ever after, when little things came along that he would slip in, we called them his "Alfred Hitchcock appearances."
Part Two: Probes
|(1)||"It's a description of a forest -- you'd only be interested in it if you were interested in forests."|
McPhee: There's always going to be somebody who says that, and I guess that person is basically saying, "I'm not interested in forests, therefore I am not interested in this piece." I've written about a highly miscellaneous set of topics over time, and a type of letter that comes to me frequently is the reverse of that sentence, the exact reverse. It begins: "I never thought I would read anything about forests, but I got into it and read it all." What they're really reading about is people, and that's what they ought to notice. The oddest thing about the theme that's brought up by (1) here is that the subject that provokes such a remark most often is geology, and it also provokes the reverse. But with the exception of Coming into the Country, which is about Alaska, my geology work has found the largest number of readers. The geology work has also found the largest number of letters like this. Well, not too many: After Rising from the Plains there were about four hundred letters, and one like this. Some lawyer in Boston wrote me a letter and said "PLEASE STOP WRITING ABOUT GEOLOGY" in capital letters. I wanted to write to him to say that he was asking me to give up my work, so, fair enough, one thing this country could use one less of is a lawyer; he should give up his work. But such letters still sit in a box. I haven't answered them; I don't see how to answer a letter like that without having fun.
It's interesting that you said your writing is about people.
McPhee: That's the common denominator of all the work that I've done and that's what attracts me to it. I'm describing people engaged in their thing, their activity, whatever it is. The point is that a great deal more comes across about them than about the technique or the craft that they employ. It is a way of writing about people, so I find myself a little bit disappointed when I read something like "This writer is really interested in facts, he just loves facts." It's like saying that somebody who is a painter really loves paint, he just can't get enough of it, he eats it in the morning . . . .
|(2)||"The language is too fancy. All of that playing around with description makes it harder to understand."|
McPhee: If this is true, then it's bad writing and it fails, that's all. It fails with this reader, obviously. There's a couple of things to say here. If the writer does not trust the material, the writer will show it by playing around with language, or description, or by being "cute," or making it harder to understand. Of course, one doesn't want to do that. I couldn't agree less that "the language is too fancy." What's writing all about except to try to pick the very best word you can, which is often one a great deal more simple than the one that you first thought of? But "fancy" is scarcely the word. If you think you're seeing somebody riding a bicycle down the street with his two arms high in the air yelling "Look, Ma, no hands!" that's not exactly what I'm trying to do. If it seems that way I hope there's something wrong with the reader rather than with me, but how would I know?
"All of that playing around with description makes it harder to understand." If this critique is true then the description isn't very good, because the purpose of description is to bring someone to an understanding of whatever is being described. The goal is as simple as that.
|(3)||"There are too many facts, all mixed up, which makes it very hard to remember things."|
McPhee: First of all, I have no idea what "mixed up" means, except that it's mixed up in the way that you'd mix up a recipe. If you bake it and it comes out all right, then that's "mixed up." But there is an order here that was at least planned from beginning to end by a person who took the whole thing into account before beginning, and who followed an order that seemed to the person writing it to contain logic. That's how it seems to me. If it seems "all mixed up" to someone, then that person isn't following me through my structure. I find that a lot of people don't seem to have this problem.
"There are too many facts." Well, the facts are chosen. Let's say, just arbitrarily, that there are three hundred facts I could have used and I used a hundred and eleven. I hope that the hundred and eleven are neither one too many nor one too few and that the number seems appropriate. But it is a highly subjective thing. What have I got to go with but my own criterion, which is that if it interests me it goes in and if it doesn't it goes out? It's that imperfect.
What do you think about the reader's assumption that it is necessary to remember things?
McPhee: I wondered about that when I saw it myself. If you want to remember things, read it again. That would be true for anybody or anything. I just couldn't agree with this at all. I'm writing about a virgin forest that I didn't even know about even though I grew up close to it. I first heard about it ten years or so ago. I'd been thinking about doing this ever since. When I finally got around to it, I went over there and talked to the director, and went to Harvard and talked to the previous director. I chatted about it with Henry Horn, who is in the Biology Department at Princeton. I read some things and talked to people at Lamont Doherty who work with tree rings. And so forth. You know, I spent a week or so simply talking about this subject with people, and therefore had collected a great big hamperful of material about it. Then I turned around to do a piece of writing that would include what I thought was worth writing about, worth passing on, worth attempting to form into sentences and shape as a structure -- an integral piece of writing. And then I turned to this reader and the reader said, "There are too many facts." All I can say is, "Go get your own hamper." Because I can't do anything about it. If too many people said that, I'd be looking for work.
Was there any reason in particular that you decided to write this?
McPhee: First of all, the forest is about ten miles from my home. I was born in the same town I live in now, and I didn't know about this place until sometime in the past ten years or so. I've forgotten quite how I learned about it -- probably talking to Jim Merritt, a friend of mine who writes about science a lot. He may have mentioned this place. I said that would make a good "Talk of the Town" piece. Merritt said, "Can I come with you if you do that?" So Jim was there, too. He's not mentioned in the piece, he just went along. He wanted to see how I do a piece. It is the first time I've ever done that with anybody in all my life. At any rate, Jim may have been the person who first mentioned this to me, or it may have been the previous director, Richard Forman, who is mentioned at the end. After I learned about the place, I decided I wanted to go up there, but it always just seemed to me to be an opportunity for a little "Talk of the Town" piece, nothing more. I mentioned it to William Shawn years ago, and he said, "Oh, yes, fine. Do that sometime." But basically I'm involved with much longer pieces of writing, and I just let that one sit there.
Then there came a great change at The New Yorker magazine. A new editor, Bob Gottlieb, came along, and Mark Singer at The New Yorker told me that there was going to be a pretty big need for "Talk" pieces for a while. So that returned the idea to my mind. I had finished a long piece about Louisiana, so I thought, last spring, I'll do a couple of "Talk" pieces and contribute them at this point, and in this way get to know Bob Gottlieb sooner. For the first time since 1975 I went out to do a "Talk" piece -- and this was it.
1. For other useful views of McPhee's writing methods, not in interview form, see Hamilton and see Howarth.
2. This interview is an edited version of our conversation with McPhee in St. Louis, where we were all attending CCCC (March 1988). We thank Charles Schuster not only for making the arrangements but for taping the final five minutes of the interview. Thanks also to Judith Newman, Allan Neilsen, and an anonymous reviewer for responses to an earlier version of this article. We are most grateful, of course, to Mr. McPhee, for submitting himself to this process and for his encouragement.
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-----. The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed. New York: Farrar, 1973.
-----. "In Virgin Forest." New Yorker 6 July 1987: 21-23.
-----. "Ranger." Pieces of the Frame. New York: Farrar, 1975. 219-62.
-----. Rising from the Plains. New York: Farrar, 1987.
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Schuster, Charles I. "Mikhail Bakhtin as Rhetorical Theorist." College English 47 (Oct. 1985): 594-607.
Singular, Stephen. "Talk with John McPhee." New York Times Book Review (27 Nov. 1977): 1+.
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