I have a particular soft spot for famed New Yorker writer John McPhee. He is, of course, an inspired writer of environmental and outdoor adventure pieces, and a skilled writer of human profile sketches. But the mention of his name is also a reminder to me never to make assumptions about people or places, which is a good lesson to carry around in your back pocket.
For me, you see, John McPhee will always bring to mind images of a tiny town in coastal Alaska by the name of Yakutat. I don’t even know that McPhee ever even visited the place. If I had to take odds, in fact, I’d say he probably didn’t. Yakutat is tucked into the coastline about halfway between Sitka and Anchorage, has a grand total of 800 people living there. It also has a road system that goes exactly one mile out of town before coming to an abrupt halt on the far side of a bridge built by residents obviously hopeful of something a little bigger. Everything in Yakutat has to be brought in by plane or boat, and the local industry pretty much consists of fishing or canning, although the locals are trying to get some tourism to take root there.
It’s a town very much like the one profiled in the television show Northern Exposure, except maybe a little smaller. It’s very dark in the winter, and the coastal rain and fog are prodigious. So when I arrived to do an article on the salmon fishing industry there, I took one look and summed it up as a hick town in the middle of nowhere. Pretty, to be sure, but undoubtedly bereft of culture or intellectual stimulation.
One of the fishermen I interviewed there, who was thinking of trading in his fishing boat for a tourist boat because a combination of factors had driven salmon prices down too far to make a profit anymore, took me out in his outboard runabout boat to show me a bit of what the area had to offer. As we scooted across Yakutat Bay, he asked me what magazines I wrote for. I listed several, including, I said, ” a couple of New York magazines.” (I was writing pieces for ForbesLife and Elite Traveler magazines at that time).
“Did you say you wrote for The New Yorker?” he asked. I was a little taken aback that he even knew of the publication. No, I told him, just a couple of magazines based in New York.
“Ah,” he said with a thoughtful nod. “Because, you know, I love John McPhee’s writing there. Have you ever read any of his stuff?”
In all of my world travels, that moment remains one of my favorites of unexpected discovery; one of those times you are forced to completely re-evaluate a person or situation and remind yourself to be a little less sure of yourself in the future. There I was in a dirty, working skiff of a blue-collar fisherman, skimming across a remote bay in Alaska, discussing literature and articles from the elite New Yorker magazine with the liveliest of intellectual companions. It was surreal, it was wonderful, and shame on me for assuming, even if it was unconsciously, that one could only be a fisherman OR a purveyor of great writing and ideas. So since then, I have held John McPhee in special esteem for unwittingly teaching me an important and humbling caution and lesson about what I allow myself to assume.
Of course, McPhee is also a great writer and thinker in his own right. And in my belated catching-up of old magazine articles this summer, I came across a piece he wrote last fall–once again, for The New Yorker–that offers a great window to how inspiration and ideas come about.
Called “Progression,” the article traces how McPhee himself came up with some of the ideas he’s written about. (Here’s a link to the source, although there’s a fee to read it if you’re not a subscriber.)
Just getting a window inside a successful creative mind to chart how all those great ideas came about is worth the read. But there are parallels in his piece to the search many of us go through–not just looking for article idea, inspiration or subject to pursue, but looking for an idea, inspiration, or goal to pursue, period.
How do you choose a particular hobby, career, or path in life? How do you get inspiration or the sure certainty that this project, topic, or idea is one worth pursuing? As McPhee says in the piece,
“Why choose that one over all other concurrent possibilities? … Ideas are everywhere. They just go by in a ceaseless stream. Since you may take a month, or ten months, or several years to turn one idea into a piece of writing, what governs the choice? I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe twenty or thirty years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than ninety percent.”
It’s just more evidence that we aren’t as lost as we might imagine in the overwhelming world of choices as an adult. There are certain things, whether it’s certain subjects, types of work, causes, settings, an activities, that we are, for one reason or another, drawn to. And while some people only discover their leanings as adults, I suspect that the seeds for what we become passionate about pursuing are, indeed, often laid in childhood.
That doesn’t mean those clues are obvious to see. I doubt McPhee realized that his writing subjects were so tied to things he’d been interested in as a kid until he did that little looking-back exercise. That’s what makes it tricky. It’s much harder to see the patterns looking forward. But it also means that we can find important compass clues by looking back from wherever we are in life. What did I like most to do as a teenager? What things did I get fired up about? What kinds of activities did I like to do?
The second piece of the equation, of course, is exploring forward from those basic inclinations. And that, too, McPhee talked about in the piece. As he put it,
“Ideas are where you find them, and … new pieces can shoot up from other pieces, pursuing connections that run through the ground like rhizomes. Set one of those progressions in motion, and it will skein out in surprising ways, finally ending in some unexpected place.”
If there is a secret wisdom to finding a passionate path in life, that’s pretty much it. Figure out what types of things you have always found compelling, and then explore outward from those roots to wherever they lead you, with a mind open to the unexpected jewels, inspiration, or places you might find along the way.
As with writing, so with life: the shortest path to a place you love is rarely a straight line. And it’s often that exploratory journey, seemingly inefficient and frustrating as it may be in the midst of it, that not only gets you to that place, but also allows you to recognize that spot, once you arrive, for the jewel it really is.