McPhee to writers "You're going to get there."

“When a person is twenty-one or twenty-two years old and facing that great enigma about what to do, envying the law students or medical students who can get on a set of rails and run on it and know where they’re going, the writer doesn’t know. But a writer should also bear in mind there are numerous paths to this goal and they’re all O.K….You’re going to get there. If the person expects the big answer at twenty-one, that’s ridiculous. Everyone’s in the dark.”

(John McPhee quoted in Literary Journalism in an essay by editor Norman Sims)

When I was twenty-two I was a world-traveling SCUBA instructor with a degree in Anthropology hanging on the wall of my vacant bedroom at my parent’s house. I wasn’t allowed to put holes in the wall of the attic, accessed by fold down stairs, in which I lived in Key West.

Would I ever actually use the degree?

I didn’t want to be an Anthropologist. I wanted to write. But how?

When I turned off the light in my attic I was literally and figuratively in the dark.

I’ve recounted my writing path before, so I won’t do it again here, but I would like to touch on something that McPhee said. I have always envied folks on a traditional career path, including med students, law students, and teachers. They know they have to go to school for X many years and then for X many years more, and then they’ll find a job doing X. A writer faces uncertainty.

You can work your tail off writing your novel only to complete it and no one wants to publish it. You can travel the world chasing the tags of your clothes with a notion of an idea that could be a book, maybe, and you could return with nothing to show but a wallet $8,000 lighter.

Writing takes courage, faith, and, in my case, a very a patient spouse.

I was a columnist earning less than $30 per week. Then I was a freelancer earning a couple of hundred per story. Then I was an author who was paid a year’s salary (a year working at McDonald’s). Then I was a freelancer earning up to $3 per word. Then I was a speaker, earning a couple grand per talk. And now I’m all of the above, sometimes.

I’m not really sure.

I had a day job, but it is no more. I know how I’ll earn a living from now until December, but after that I have no idea. The Nothing Personal book proposal is very near to going out. Even though I think it’s a killer book, who knows how it will be received? My last two proposals had some interest, but not enough to give them life. So much of a writing career depends on someone else believing in your story.

At 21 I lived McPhee’s quote and at 31, a published author, I still do. Yes, I live the uncertainty, but more than that I have faith in what McPhee says, “You’re going to get there.” I hope that I will always be striving for a there — another book, the next speaking gig, This American Life, the New Yorker, Esquire, a novel.

A writer must constantly evolve. McPhee says, “It’s like a huge river with a lot of islands in it. You can go around an island to the left or right. You can got to this or that island. You might go to an eddy. But you’re still in the river.”

What’s next for me? Maybe a book. I’ve got some cool radio pieces in the works and an exciting list of fun speaking gigs coming up. Maybe school.

To grow as a writer I’m auditing a graduate course in Literary Journalism at Ball State that led me to the book below (affiliate link) and McPhee’s quote. Maybe I’ll take the course for credit and pursue my MA.

When I grow up I want to be a writer. I’m not positive how I’ll continue my pursuit of there, but one thing is for sure — I’ll never stop paddling.

Norman Sims says:

Your comment that you’ll never stop paddling is particularly appropriate for a discussion involving John McPhee. He’s always been a big fan of canoes and frequently uses river metaphors. I’ve interviewed McPhee several times and he is, in person, exactly the same kind of fellow you encounter on the page. But one of the many things that amaze me about him is his attitude toward writing. He’s written more than 30 books and he’s been with The New Yorker since the 1960s. Yet he still says writing is the most difficult thing in his life. Sometimes he lies on his back on a picnic table outside his house, staring up into a tree and wondering how in the world he’ll tell this story. Keep paddling, but it won’t get any easier.
Thanks for mentioning my book.
Norman Sims

Kristi Scott says:

Kelsey, you’re in my head. I’m not pursuing a writing career at this point but I know that I will never be on a “traditional” career path. I’ve always wanted to find a traditional path but I know that isn’t for me. What McPhee wrote applies to all of us, even the “traditional” career people. Life is a journey and we all need to stop expecting it to be a destination.

Kelsey says:


Is the fact that he still says that writing is the most difficult thing in his life supposed to make the rest of us feel better? Here I thought it was supposed to get easier.

I would love to spend a day paddling a river with McPhee or interviewing him as you have.

I’m really enjoying your book. Well done and thanks.

Tom Ashbrook of On Point interviewd McPhee earlier this year:


You’re doing a great job of paddling. I’m always amazed at how useful I’ve found the detours in life. Just checking in on your blog and I’m excited for you that you are out there doing it. There’s another quote from an essay by David Quammen that I’ll share with you.

He’s 26 and working as a waiter in Montana. He’s not sure what he wants to do with his life and writes, somewhat terrified, “this period was not some sort of prelude to my life but the thing itself.”

Gotta love those quarter-life crises!

Steve says:

That’s a very interesting story. I wanted to be a writer growing up too and I even got a degree in English in college. I write mostly for fun now, but I didn’t make a career out of it.

I like that quote about writing being like a river. That’s a good way to describe it.

Kelsey, Great post! Inspiring and true. I think we do get better at writing, but also that it doesn’t get easier. How can that be? Our standards go up with our abilities. And of course each work has its own challenges . . .

Let your voice be heard!