John McPhee on Writing and the Relationship Between Artistic Originality and Self-Doubt

“Never stop battling for the survival of your own unique stamp.”

John McPhee on Writing and the Relationship Between Artistic Originality and Self-Doubt

“I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were.” So wrote John Steinbeck as he was working on the book that earned him a Pulitzer and paved the way for his Nobel Prize. “I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability,” he exorcised the demon of self-doubt in his diary — the demon that discomposes every writer until, as Virginia Woolf observed while revolutionizing literature with Orlando, they no longer know whether they are “the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.” Few are the Whitmans who can proclaim: “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood.” Even Whitman was not a Whitman but many Whitmans, fractured and dissonant — even for him, this was but one multitude speaking; another, in the very verses that prompted the divinest genius in him to cry out in such self-celebration, whispered this universal assurance:

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?

How to live with the dark patches of self-doubt, how to regard their umbra not as an obstacle on the path to good writing but as the path itself, is what John McPhee addresses in a portion of one of those supremely rare, supremely helpful meta-masterworks of literature, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (public library).

John McPhee (Photograph: Princeton University)

From the hard-conquered promontory of his half-century contributorship for The New Yorker, he looks back on his early days as a freelancer, still adrift in the torrents of self-doubt despite his early successes:

In some twenty months, I had submitted half a dozen pieces, short and long, and the editor, William Shawn, had bought them all. You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. 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. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed.

Considering what helped him through the disorientation of self-doubt, what helps anyone, he adds:

Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help. The help is spoken and informal, and includes insight, encouragement, and reassurance with regard to a current project.

But whatever the hue and texture of self-doubt may be, McPhee argues, its very presence is evidence of correctly calibrated creative aspiration:

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists? And unless you can identify what is not succeeding — unless you can see those dark clunky spots that are giving you such a low opinion of your prose as it develops — how are you going to be able to tone it up and make it work?

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In consonance with Rachel Carson’s insistence that “if you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in… you will interest other people” — a downright countercultural orientation in our era of catering to ever-lowering existing tastes rather than elevating and cultivating new sensibilities, new interests, new frames of reference — McPhee shines a sidewise gleam on the relationship between self-doubt and originality. Resonating between the lines of this excellent part-manual part-memoir of writing, reverberating throughout his own symphonic body of work, is the subtle, splendid assurance that self-doubt is a function of daring to try the untried, daring to move beyond the template and the formula that leave little room for doubt and rise to the challenge of the unexampled. Whatever improvements may be made on your writing — stylistically or conceptually, by an editor or by your own redrafting eye — McPhee urges for the fierce preservation of that unexampled insignia:

Never stop battling for the survival of your own unique stamp.

And yet that stamp, he reminds us, is carved by the blade of existing excellence. Echoing Mary Oliver’s charming insistence that “the perils of not imitating are greater than the perils of imitating” and affirming Oliver Sacks’s insight into the progression from imitation to originality, McPhee cites what he told his own daughter when she lamented that her style either feels “overwhelmingly self-conscious and strained” or mimics whatever she is reading at the moment:

The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered — wherever and whenever — and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own. Rapidly, the components of imitation fade. What remains is a new element in your own voice, which is not in any way an imitation. Your manner as a writer takes form in this way, a fragment at a time. A style that lacks strain and self-consciousness is what you seem to aspire to, or you wouldn’t be bringing the matter up. Therefore, your goal is in the right place. So practice taking shots at it. A relaxed, unself-conscious style is not something that one person is born with and another not. Writers do not spring full-blown from the ear of Zeus.”

Or, as Auden observed in one of his singular strokes of wry perspicacity, “some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.”

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Complement this fragment of McPhee’s altogether essential Draft No. 4 with Steinbeck’s astonishing use of the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt, then revisit James Baldwin’s advice on writing and a dose from Hemingway, T.S. Eliot’s wonderful letter of wisdom and encouragement to an adolescent girl aspiring to be a writer, musician Ben Folds on how to find your artistic voice, and Whitman on how to keep criticism from sinking your creative confidence.

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