February 12, 2020. This morning, by accident, trying to find something to read at breakfast among the back issues of The New Yorker that we'd let pile up, I discovered, in the January 13, 2020 issue, "Tabula Rasa: Volume One" by John McPhee. Over the years I've collected all of McPhee's books; depending on the physical measurement of the books, they take up most of the middle shelf in one bookcase, part of the narrower paperback shelf above, and part of the taller lower shelf below. I've read them all and occasionally reviewed them. The last one I reviewed was Draft #4: On the Writing Process, considered along with a review of The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl: two of my favorite nonfictionists pondering their own careers after decades of memorable publications. Since then McPhee published a miscellany, The Patch, a patchwork publication, drawing on things that had never made it into his books.
"Tabula Rasa," however, is different from everything else he's written, including The Patch. It consists of nine distinct segments, the first and last segments forming a frame through focus on locations in Spain, one titled "Trujillo," after a town in Extremadura, and the other "Extremadura," identified as "an autonomous community" the size of Switzerland. The segment that reveals what McPhee is up to in the article (almost a jumble of micro-essays) is the second one, "Thornton Wilder at the Century." McPhee explains how, decades ago, his editor at Time took him to meet Thornton Wilder. When Wilder was asked what he was working on, the playwright explained that he was cataloging the four hundred and thirty-one surviving plays of the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. McPhee, then less than half Wilder's age of sixty-six and estimating how long such a task would take, asked ("callowly," according to him), "Why would anyone do that?" The question infuriated Wilder and McPhee was reduced to embarrassed silence for the rest of the conversation. "Nonetheless," he recalls, "at that time in my life I thought the question deserved an answer. And I couldn't imagine what it might be." Then McPhee responds to his younger self:
I can now. I am eighty-eight years old at this writing, and I know that those four hundred and thirty-one plays were serving to extend Thornton Wilder's life. Reading them and cataloging them was something to do, and do, and do. It was a project meant not to end.
He realizes, "I could use one of my own. . . . With the same ulterior motive, I could undertake to describe in capsule form the many writing projects that I have conceived and seriously planned across the years but have never written." An essay or book about Extremadura was one of them.
In the third segment (or capsule), "The Moons of Methusaleh," McPhee muses about the unwritten writing he might now reflect upon, but starts to have second thoughts. He tells of bike riding with a friend and "whin[ing]" about how such a project "begets a desire to publish what you write, and publication defeats the ongoing project, the purpose of which is to keep the old writer alive by never coming to an end." His friend advises, "Just call it 'Volume One.'"
When I have a writing project in process I often keep a log or a journal, occasional reports to myself about how the work is progressing. Sometimes, when the writing isn't going well, I borrow an approach McPhee has used. He claimed he would write a letter to his mother, begin with family chatter but then complain about what he's working on. By explaining to her what he should be writing but hasn't been, he ends up drafting the text that he was blocked on. He then tears off the top of the letter and copies the part where he created a rough draft of a chapter or article and goes back to work, no longer blocked. I've used the same strategy, sometimes explaining to my wife, if she asks what I'm doing, that I'm writing about why I'm not writing. In the midst of something in process, the strategy works.
Lately however, having completed two book-length manuscripts that I haven't yet published and published all the essays and articles I have completed, my various logs and journals have mostly been about what I'm not doing. Sometimes there are mentions of work that I started long ago but never followed through on or work that I spent years researching that only recently produced one short essay instead of the massive travel memoir I'd intended to write. I realize how much of my time is taken up with daily chores and tangential tasks and writing log entries about how much more stalled various potential projects have become. But reading that passage about McPhee's belated awareness of what Wilder was up to moved me to tears. Later he writes of "decid[ing] to describe many such saved-up, bypassed, intended pieces of writing as an old-man project of my own." I was immediately aware that I was only ten years younger than McPhee and he had never steered me wrong before. I too could engage in a project like Wilder's and McPhee's (and, according to McPhee, Mark Twain's). Instead of frequently writing about not writing I could write about what I didn't write. It would help me empty a good many boxes of file folders cluttering up our garage.
And then I thought, I could post my capsules on a blog. A blog isn't really a publication, is it? Isn't a blog kind of like a journal, its entries left open on the Internet?
It might be a project that would never end.