Last week, John McPhee published a lengthy piece on The Structure of Nonfiction Writing in The New Yorker. The collective eye-glaze of readers upon hearing that news could cover all the world's donuts. We're happy to report, though, that McPhee has surprised us.
With his sheer prosaic dullness! As the Grand Old Man of The New Yorker, McPhee has a laminated, wallet-sized card that entitles him to a lifetime supply of his own thoughts, published in The New Yorker. Sometimes, these thoughts are deep, well-researched, surprising meditations that reveal a hidden and fascinating side of ostensibly workaday topics. Other times, they are multi-thousand-word digressions on the intricacies of the computer text editing programs that John McPhee has used to write other, more interesting stories.
Kedit (pronounced "kay-edit"), a product of the Mansfield Software Group, is the only text editor I have ever used. I have never used a word processor. Kedit did not paginate, italicize, approve of spelling, or screw around with headers, WYSIWYGs, thesauruses, dictionaries, footnotes, or Sanskrit fonts. Instead, Howard wrote programs to run with Kedit in imitation of the way I had gone about things for two and a half decades...
Structur [another text editing program] exploded my notes. It read the codes by which each note was given a destination or destinations (including the dustbin). It created and named as many new Kedit files as there were codes, and, of course, it preserved intact the original set. In my first I.B.M. computer, Structur took about four minutes to sift and separate fifty thousand words. My first computer cost five thousand dollars. I called it a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.
I wrote my way sequentially from Kedit file to Kedit file from the beginning to the end of the piece. Some of those files created by Structur could be quite long. So each one in turn needed sorting on its own, and sometimes fell into largish parts that needed even more sorting. In such phases, Structur would have been counterproductive. It would have multiplied the number of named files, choked the directory, and sent the writer back to the picnic table, and perhaps under it. So Howard wrote Alpha. Alpha implodes the notes it works on. It doesn't create anything new. It reads codes and then churns a file internally, organizing it in segments in the order in which they are meant to contribute to the writing.
Alpha is the principal, workhorse program I run with Kedit. Used again and again on an ever-concentrating quantity of notes, it works like nesting utensils. It sorts the whole business at the outset, and then, as I go along, it sorts chapter material and subchapter material, and it not infrequently arranges the components of a single paragraph. It has completely served many pieces on its own. When I run it now, the action is instantaneous in a way that I—born in 1931—find breathtaking. It's like a light switch. I click on "Run Alpha," and in zero seconds a window appears that says, for example:
Alpha has completed 14 codes and 1301 paragraph segments were processed. 7246 lines were read and 7914 lines were written to the sorted file.
One line is 11.7 words.
As he writes, he wears an onion on his belt.
We're not mad at you, John McPhee. We can only dream of a day when we land a job somewhere that allows us to publish, to a wide audience, our most mundane thoughts, with no filter, no editorial intervention, no voice of reason telling us that perhaps the readers don't care about... oh.
[He does have some good tips about note cards. Photo: AP]