Writing Routines

John McPhee’s Writing Routine: “Time is the thing that has always favored me.”

John McPhee is an American writer, who is widely considered as one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction, and a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the category General Nonfiction.

Time is the thing that has always favored me. My pieces take a long time and I’m around the subject a lot. Then they get used to me and we’re kind of working on it together. And that’s the nature of it. I’m awestruck by the skill of daily journalists who go out and come back and get this whole thing done in a day.

What I think: John McPhee | Princeton University

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When it comes to writing careers, you’d be hard pressed to find one as revered and storied as John McPhee. A staff writer for The New Yorker since 1963, McPhee is widely regarded as a pioneer of creative nonfiction and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 1998 geology book, Annals of the Former World.

McPhee has built a career out of writing about obscure topics and drawing the interesting out of the mundane. His writings have covered eclectic subjects the farming of oranges, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, birch-bark canoes, and the headmaster of Deerfield Academy, to name a few.

In addition to his writing, McPhee also teaches a writing course at Princeton University. He’s held the role of Ferris Professor of Journalism since 1974, and many of his students have gone on to acclaimed writing careers of their own, including David Remnick, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker; Richard Stengel, former managing editor of Time magazine, Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body.

Even at the age of 89, McPhee has no plans to retire from writing or teaching, though he revealed that he never does both at the same time. “When I teach in the spring semester, I let the writer lie fallow. I’ve never written anything during the spring semester,” he wrote. “Then I go back to writing with fresh vigor and I’m writing through summer, fall and January.” McPhee believes that taking time out of his writing to teach actually gives him energy to publish more work, and says the two activities have a “symbiotic” relationship.

John McPhee’s daily writing routine

For McPhee it’s usually the fear of having wasted a day that spurs him into action. Despite starting his day at 9am, McPhee often doesn’t get started until the late afternoon. In an interview with Columbia Journal, McPhee describes his daily routine:

Panic plays a role in this for me because by five o’clock or something I haven’t done anything all day and it’s five o’clock and I think, “I’m gonna lose this day 100 percent.” And somehow that squeezes something out of me and I’ll write for a couple of hours or an hour and a half. Long ago I learned not to let it run on because if I let it run on, because it was going well, and I keep going — seven, eight, nine, ten o’clock — then I didn’t do anything for the next four days, so I always quit at seven o’clock, and go home and pick it up right in the middle of the same sentence the next day, but not the next morning. Some writers get stuff done in the morning and then they answer mail. It’s their routine. Anything that works is good. But in my case, it’s a case of avoiding it all day long until panic and other things set in and I get a little done. And the next day it’s the same thing and the next day it’s the same thing and cumulatively you’ve got something at the end of a year, but it sure seems slow.

Into Another World: An Interview with John McPhee | Columbia Journal

To stay fit, McPhee rides his bicycle every day. “Bicycling is a beautiful distraction,” he says. “I ride the bicycle because it’s supposed to be good to get exercise, and because I just love doing it.”

Like many writers, McPhee still suffers from the insecurities and mental blockages that plagues so many of his peers. In a 2013 New Yorker article about writing structure, McPhee confesses to lying down on a picnic table, not knowing how to begin an article, paralysed by fear and anxiety.

“I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing for The New Yorker,” he wrote. Later in the article, McPhee writes, “It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.”

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