In which we won’t pretend to know what it means

Topic Sentence #4

Here’s our topic sentence for today:

Then I went back to my own writing, my own inability to get going until five in the afternoon, my animal sense of being hunted, my resemblance to the sand of Gibraltar.

This sentence comes from John McPhee, one of the great non-fiction writers of our age, Pulitzer Prize winner, and 32 books, so far. But, if one were to look at his bibliography on Wikipedia, each book summary seems like a race to be on a topic more esoteric than the last: “the history and significance of oranges”, “the story of the ancient craft of making birch-bark canoes”, “the history of the shad” (that is, an American fish). I’ve left out his four books on geology, for the sake of plausibility.

Why would you want to read a book about oranges or fish? Because John McPhee wrote it and within his sentences, every topic blooms into significance, into wonder at the thing and its existence, into a fuller picture of the people behind it.

Draft No 4 is his book on writing (there’s an excerpt from the book here). It is, as ever, a beautifully written book. While there is immense thoughtfulness about his craft, it is also a memoir about what he has written: like any writer reaching the end of their days, there are occasional and forgivable lapses into reminiscence, stories that he needs to tell that haven’t fit anywhere else. But for the most part, it’s a tender look at his process, his obsession with story structure, what it was like to write within the hallowed halls of the New Yorker for more than 50 years.

Our topic sentence comes from the end of a conversation between John and his daughter, Jenny, near the beginning of her own writing career. After advising her that it is utterly normal to feel doubt (‘Who am I kidding?’), and to feel stylistically self-conscious, this passage:

Jenny said, “I can’t seem to finish anything.” 

I said, “Neither can I.”

Then I went back to my own writing, my own inability to get going until five in the afternoon, my animal sense of being hunted, my resemblance to the sand of Gibraltar.

Firstly, the sentence is rhythmically poised, a stack of parallel phrases that expand and contract like an animal’s ribcage.

Secondly, there’s the instant familiarity—anyone who has written anything, even for school, will recognise that feeling, that “animal sense of being hunted”. I could write a whole newsletter on that perfect phrase—how it makes an intrinsically abstract feeling, completely familiar and concrete. And it does it in six words.

Thirdly, there are the ironies—that he should be counselling his daughter, when he struggles to get started himself. That he still feels like he never finishes anything, despite the library shelf of books and articles that would say otherwise. A writer never gets over the feeling—there is just the knowledge that, somehow, you have journeyed through it before.

Fourthly, well, to be honest, I’m still a bit a-puzzle as to what “my resemblance to the sand of Gibraltar” means, exactly. A comparison to feeling like the sand, ephemeral and fleeting, compared to the rock of having written? If you have ideas, let me know.

(If you want another wormhole to burrow in, John McPhee’s musings about dictionary use led to this post about trying to find McPhee’s dictionary, which then leads to the web version of the beautiful Webster’s 1913 dictionary. Thank you Paul for the link!)

Deep within a wormhole,


p.s. If you ever read anything I recommend, please let me know! It makes me happy. Or if you have questions, or your own recommendations, don’t hesitate to ask. <3