On nonfiction

Dear Minami—Across my years as a writer and a writing teacher, I have been asked myriad questions about the reporting and compositional process but not before now this basic one of yours. And the answer comes forth without a moment’s contemplation: I know right away when I hear a quote I’ll want to include in the story. . . . In interviews, I scribble and scribble, gathering impressions, observations, information, and quotes, but not altogether mindlessly. Writing is selection. From the first word of the first sentence in an actual composition, the writer is choosing, selecting, and deciding (most importantly) what to leave out. In a broader, less efficient way, that is what goes on during the scribbling of interview notes. I jot down everything that strikes me as having any potentiality whatever to be useful in the future composition, and since I am learning on the job and don’t know what the piece will be like, I scoop up, say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use. But when Fred Brown says “Come in. Come in. Come on the hell in,” I come in, sit down, and soon jot the line. I don’t have to be Nostradamus to sense that his form of greeting will be useful, any more than I could resist his remark about papering and his sinuses. Factual writing is also a kind of treasure hunt, and when the nuggets come along you know what they are. They often provide beginnings and endings, even titles. In interior Alaska, non-native people often describe one another in terms of when they “came into the country.” That phrase is repeated so much it is almost a litany, and I heard it so often that I had a title for “Coming Into the Country” long before any of it was written. That was lucky and rare, because titles are usually very hard to choose.

- from Omission, by John McPhee via The New Yorker