In Following John McPhee to Florida, Wyatt Williams follows a journalist at The New Yorker who knew how to write about the simple things in life quite extensively. John McPhee began his non-fiction journey with the story of the orange. How many of us really know the tales of the fruits that spring outside in the avenues before us or in our own backyards? I sure don’t. Mcphee dug into the stories of fruits and rocks and he cared about rendering their stories with sweet perfection.
McPhee had only to mention the word ‘Oranges’ to his editor to spark interest. He wrote extensively for the New Yorker from then on and also has written books about any subject under the sun. If you want to learn how to write non-fiction, it would be a good idea to read a book by him called Annals of the Former World.
Wyatt Williams is a writer about food himself and he follows in McPhee’s footsteps to understand how he created such an engaging narrative on not just oranges but the entire process of food manufacturing in America. What should a nonfiction writer then do? This passage on McPhee’s style might help:
McPhee moves from biological fact to globe-trotting observation to seventeenth-century poetry of the imagined tropics to the top of a snow-covered mountain to a present-day agricultural epicenter, before returning to his original line of inquiry with the lavish description of a single beautiful orange.
The trick to writing good non-fiction is that there is no trick. All you need to do is write the truth, peel the orange rind and write about what you see. If you are in the mood for some enlightenment with a citrus flavor, or cliches apart, some good prose, read this essay.