John McPhee is a hero of mine. As one of the best nonfiction writers out there, the Princeton professor and contributor to The New Yorker magazine can turn any subject into a pleasurable read. He’s written about geology, the merchant marines, physics—heck, even an entire book on oranges. Believe it or not, they’re all as engaging as a crime thriller. But more impressive to me is the skill behind his craft. McPhee is a quiet man with a gentle voice, and I’ve got a hunch it helps when interviewing sources. He just sits, makes the source as comfortable as possible, and takes notes periodically, really listening for the most interesting points. He also asks sources the same question several times, phrased differently, to elicit alternative responses, which reveal those all-important nuances that make writing interesting. And he still organizes all of his notes on those old-fashioned index cards.
I have to wonder if McPhee would have turned out to be such an amazing writer if he were born today, in an age of digital voice recorders and laptops. I’m grateful for the John McPhees of the world, those who started their careers before technology changed everything. They grew up learning the fundamentals, with no grammar- or spell-check to help them.
Jerry Ward likely thinks the same thing about the fundamentals, just for a different skill set. The vice president of Metcam, a metal fabricator north of Atlanta, remembers the days of absolutely needing to know the intricacies of flat layout, bend angles, and all the other metal fabrication fundamentals.