John McPhee: Narrative Master

The man himself

Narrative storytelling is so hot right now. It’s the cronut of entertainment. You don’t have to go far to see that it’s blasted all over just about everything: TV, movies, podcasts. If you’ve got a story to tell, there’s likely a market for it. But, as the voice of constant nay-saying, I want to remind the world that narrative storytelling is not the only method of moving, educating, or transforming an audience.

Case in point: John McPhee. This guy delivers a master class in narrative structure every time he sets pen to paper. He also singlehandedly made me love basketball.

Full disclosure, when I last taught a class of students, I had them read McPhee’s singular Encounters with the Archdruid, a nonfiction work about David Brower, the environmental movement, and the Sierra Club. My students mostly didn’t like it. I don’t think they disliked it because of anything McPhee did. They disliked it because it didn’t hem to the traditional methods of storytelling they were used to.

Brower, one of the subjects of Encounters, in the most stereotypical environmentalist photo of all time.

Also, maybe they just didn’t like reading about the environmental movement. Sad!

My favorite McPhee (he’s written a ton of books) is his 1965 profile of then Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley. For those unfamiliar with Bradley, he played basketball, was a Rhodes Scholar, went to play for the New York Knicks, successfully became the Senator for New Jersey for 18 years, and then ran for President, losing the Democratic party nomination in 2000 to Al Gore.

Bradley with the Knicks.

But, at the time McPhee was writing about him, he was just an exceptional basketball player and student.

The cool thing about this profile and piece of factual writing (as McPhee likes to call his work) is that it’s both a picture of a person, a picture of a sport, and metaphor for what it looks like when someone is truly skilled. I’ve always seen it as a metaphor for writing. McPhee gets it. In order for you to understand Bradley, first you need to understand where the writer stands relative to him. McPhee’s dad was a doctor at Princeton, where he helped with athletic programs. His dad was like “you gotta check out this guy” and McPhee was like “ok.”

McPhee describes how he had lost interest in the sport (IN 1965, HA): “The players, in a sense, had gotten better than the game, and the game had become uninteresting.”

But, we meet Bradley, who plays the most fundamental basketball he’s ever seen, and he writes “He did all things he didn’t have to do simply because those were the dimensions of the game.” Bradley’s big, athletic, and a sharpshooter, he doesn’t need to be a fundamental player, but he is.

McPhee is funny, following Bradley in practice, interviewing his family and friends, and tracking Princeton’s movement through the NCAA tournament where they take third place. At one point, he describes Bradley as having “overcome the disadvantage of wealth,” a statement we’ll likely never hear again. McPhee is a master of picking the precise right moment to capture a sense of a person. I use that word specifically, due to this quote he gets from Bradley:

“‘When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this,’ he said, throwing it over his shoulder again and right through the hoop. ‘You develop a sense of where you are.’”

That’s what McPhee understands that many writers and entertainers have lost. A sense of what a play, TV show, movie, or book can be. Conjuring up an idea, evoking a mood or feeling, without necessarily placing it in some larger context is a lost art. Good writers are like Bradley, versed in the fundamentals, rather than simply being experts in a particular bag of tricks.

Thinking about McPhee always makes me tear up, because I believe him to be a beautiful human. He’s been teaching at Princeton forever, and one of his students, now a WaPo writer, Joel Achenbach, has this to say in an article he wrote on the venerable writer:

“Many of his students became professional writers, and he lined up their books on his office shelf, but McPhee never has suggested that the point of writing is to make money, or that the merit of your writing is determined by its market value. A great paragraph is a great paragraph wherever it resides, he’d say. It could be in your diary.”

Workmanlike, beautiful. A gift that most of us can only hope to create for others.