WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

“Who Am I Kidding?”

That question is in your mind a lot if you consider yourself a writer.

And every writer or aspiring writer should find a way to read John McPhee’s piece, “Draft. No. 4,” in the April 29th issue of The New Yorker. (Sadly, it’s behind a pay wall, so grab a neighbor’s copy or read it at the library.) It’s inspiring while simultaneously and continuously reminding you of the many many obstacles to memorable, valuable, influential writing, which must always begin with doubt.

In fact, if you never ask yourself, “Who am I kidding?” — you might not be cut out for this stuff.

McPhee takes us through the agony of the first draft, when you hardly know what it is you’re trying to express or describe, through the sense of improvisation — and in many ways the first draft can be a lot like jazz improvisation, for instance, at least if you have a general idea of structure and direction — through the process of revision and reconsideration, confidence building, confidence destruction, line-by-line nit-picking, with each step leading toward the goal of meaning. Meanings emerge through this anguishing process. Confidence evolves. You question the meaning of words, realize you never really understood the meaning of that word (like one of his examples, Arctic, which as it turns out refers to the northern constellation, The Bear), and grasp, finally, that your grammar has muddled your meaning and that you have to drop your post-modern resistance and reach for those dry old rules that will help you say what you mean to say, until you emerge at the end of it all with a piece of writing that is as sparklingly clear and powerful as you can possibly make it.

We should all be aspiring to that, ideally, and when we find ourselves rushing through a first draft and making excuses that a deadline looms or the thing is clear enough, we might want to pause for a minute and ask (I know I do), “Who am I kidding?”

3 comments on ““Who Am I Kidding?”

  1. 1WriteWay
    March 4, 2014

    OMG, I’m here because you mentioned this post in a comment to me. And I do a quick search in my Evernote account and find that I have saved this McPhee essay. It’s just been a while since I read it 😉 I’ve been thinking about a blog post around these lines, but it’s been inspired by other things: an interview with a writer who is prolific but whose books I’ve never read, and that New Yorker essay on Jennifer Weiner. I finally found that issue this weekend when I was going through some clutter (maybe I shouldn’t admit that). I want to think I’m headed toward an epiphany but it’s really just a rationalization, I’m sure. Anywho 🙂 Thanks for pointing me to this post 🙂

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 5, 2014

      This is kind of like time traveling… It’s April ’13 again!

      • 1WriteWay
        March 5, 2014

        Cool … except I do want to move forward 😉

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This entry was posted on April 28, 2013 by in Publishing and tagged , .
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