Like the proverbial singer who makes even the phone book sound good, John McPhee can raise any topic (even chalk!) and entice you to keep reading. His prose is, without fail, clear, pure, and compelling. Lately I have relished his New Yorker pieces about the process of writing, sharing his trials and tribulations. As much as I admire his work, I admit it gives me some comfort to know that at times he has found himself lying flat on his back on a picnic bench, stumped by writer’s block, and that his success has not been easy. I also appreciate his explanations of how he muddles through. Of course, his muddling usually turns to gold. Most of us remain stuck in the muddling phase. But it is helpful to know that hard work can pay off. It gives one hope.
Recently I turned to McPhee’s early profile of Bill Bradley at Princeton (originally published in 1965, with the most recent update printed in 1999), to see if it would inspire me as much as it once did. When I was about eleven, I read A SENSE OF WHERE YOU ARE and decided that I needed to learn how to shoot lefty like Bill Bradley. I also decided that I wanted to go to Princeton.
In retrospect, it’s pretty amazing that a book can have such a powerful effect on a person, but I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I just knew I would stay in the driveway shooting baskets until it got dark, day after day, until I perfected my left-handed set shots and made at least 20 free throws in a row. Women’s basketball was not as popular back then as it is these days, and although I idolized Babe Didrikson, she was dead, so I suppose it made sense that I fixated on Bill Bradley: not only an All-American basketball star but also a Rhodes Scholar. He was the ultimate scholar-athlete, and I wanted to be just like him—well, the shorter, female version.
Re-reading McPhee’s profile, which is relentlessly glowing but also factual (Bradley was one of the best college players ever), I can see how it drew me in and gave me something to shoot for. Bradley was a straight arrow, super-smart, and well-respected by his classmates: a worthy target. And his attitude toward practice was one I still believe today: “When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.” Which reminds me: I’d better get back to that book I’m writing. I need to muddle through.