A reflection on John McPhee’s “Draft №4”
February 16, 2018
Before I left for Louisiana last Christmas, the Cartoon Editor of the New Yorker had recommended that if I were in New Orleans, I should make the trip out to Audubon Park and the nearby bookstore, Octavia Books. Sophie and I made a day of it, both snagging armfuls of weighty tomes and hobbling off to Audubon with a clandestine bottle of Chablis.
The first of my haul was John McPhee’s latest book on his vast experience as a writer, entitled Draft №4: On The Writing Process.
I was hooked from the very first word and was lamenting the inexorable conclusion awaiting me in the footnotes. I really couldn’t recommend this book highly enough. I often forget that writers aren’t just people who ‘can write’, but are people for whom writing is hard. They constantly strive for better than their last sentence.
But, to the title of this note;
A passage in the book struck me, not only due to its typical McPhee-isms — (details that were chosen very purposefully to illuminate the readers mind without saturating it. ie. leaving out the right bits.) — but because I’m the author and artist behind a legacy comic strip which has seen 5 separate artist/writers over 97 years.
The quote reads:
When I was quite young, I was inadvertently armored for a future with Roger Straus. My grandfather was a publisher. My uncle was a publisher. The house was the John C. Winston Company, “Book and Bible Publishers,” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and on their list was the Silver Chief series, about a sled dog in the frozen north. That dog was my boyhood hero.
One day, I was saddened to see in a newspaper that Jack O’Brien, the author of those books, had died. A couple of years passed. I went into high school. The publishing company became Holt, Rinehart & Winston, and my uncle Bob’s office moved to New York. When I was visiting him there one day, a man arrived for an appointment, and Uncle Bob said, “John, meet Jack O’Brien, the author of Silver Chief.” I shook the author’s hand, which wasn’t very cold. After he had gone, I said, “Uncle Bob, I thought Jack O’Brien died.”
Uncle Bob said, “He did die. He died. Actually, we’ve had three or four Jack O’Briens. Let me tell you something, John. Authors are a dime a dozen. The dog is immortal.”
What a brilliant, concise way of summing up such a stark truth. In my case, perhaps, cartoonists are a dime a dozen. The kid is immortal.