Stop what you are doing right this minute and prepare yourself for the arrival of thoroughly shocking news: John McPhee has written a ponderous New Yorker story about the process of writing itself.

“John McPhee has written a ponderous New Yorker story about the process of writing itself????” you are no doubt ejaculating in a surprised manner now. Yes, it’s true: John McPhee has written a ponderous New Yorker story about the process of writing itself. The last thing that America’s most exclusive magazine would ever do would be to deny John McPhee the right to spend pages and pages droning on about writing—and how to do it, or not.

John McPhee’s topic today? Would you believe me—oh, it’s too rich—it’s what to leave out from writing? Well, John McPhee, god of all writing gods, what should be left out of writing? Let’s see...

Robert Bingham was my editor for sixteen years. William Shawn, after editing my first two pieces himself, turned me over to Bingham very soon after Bingham came to The New Yorker from The Reporter, where he had been the managing editor. I was a commuter, and worked more at home than at the magazine. I had not met, seen, or even heard of Bingham when Shawn gave him the manuscript of a forty-thousand-word piece of mine called “Oranges.”

A year earlier, I had asked Mr. Shawn if he thought oranges would be a good subject for a piece of nonfiction writing. In his soft, ferric voice, he said, “Oh.” After a pause, he said, “Oh, yes.” And that was all he said. But it was enough. As a “staff writer,” I was basically an unsalaried freelancer, and I left soon for Florida on his nickel. Why oranges? There was a machine in Pennsylvania Station that cut and squeezed them. I stopped there as routinely as an animal at a salt lick. Across the winter months, I thought I noticed a change in the color of the juice, light to deep, and I had also seen an ad somewhere that showed what appeared to be four identical oranges, although each had a different name. My intention in Florida was to find out why, and write a piece that would probably be short for New Yorker nonfiction of that day—something under ten thousand words. In Polk County, at Lake Alfred, though, I happened into the University of Florida’s Citrus Experiment Station, five buildings isolated within vast surrounding groves. Several dozen people in those buildings had Ph.D.s in oranges, and there was a citrus library of a hundred thousand titles—scientific papers, mainly, and doctoral dissertations, and six thousand books. Then and there, my project magnified. Back home, and many months later, I sent in the manuscript.

WE DON’T CARE!!!!!!!!!!!! JOHN MCPHEE!!!!!!!! WE DON’T CARE!!!!!!

The topic of this story, again, is what to leave out.

Five days later, I returned to the city to meet Mr. Bingham. I remember hating him as I drank my juice in Penn Station. In Florida, in orange-juice-concentrate plants, there was a machine, made by the Food Machinery Corporation, called the short-form extractor. I thought of Bingham as the short-form extractor, and would call him that from time to time for years. He came down the hall to an office I had at the magazine, in a row of writers’ tiny spaces that one writer called Sleepy Hollow. This man who came through my doorway was agreeable-looking, actually handsome, with a bright-blue gaze, an oscillating bow tie, curly light-brown hair, and a sincere mustache—an instantly likable guy if the instant had not been this one. He said he was not sure how to begin our conversation, but he wondered if I would prefer to add things back to the proof that was sent to me or start with the original manuscript and talk about what might be left out.

He talked with me for five days. Enough of the manuscript was restored to make a serial publication that ran in two issues, but by no means all of it was restored. Citrus is citrus first and Sweet Orange of Valencia or Washington Navel second. The sex life of citrus is spectacular. Plant a lime seed and up comes a kumquat, or, with equal odds, a Seville orange, not to mention a rough lemon or a tangerine. “Character Differences in Seedlings of the Persian Lime” was the title of the scientific paper that described all that—a perfect title for anyone’s seven-hundred-page family history, and one item among many that expanded my manuscript to the size it reached as themes spread into related themes.

These and other passages make up John McPhee’s 5,100-word New Yorker on what to leave out of your writing.

Anyhow, you know what’s destroying writing these days? Twitter.

[Photo: AP]