"Look at Your Fish!"
David McCullough and the Importance of Observation in Every Walk of Life
For years, I wanted to be a novelist. Beyond my journalism, I had never thought of writing non-fiction. I’m not exactly sure why, perhaps because fiction had always been what I read throughout school and for pleasure. Then one afternoon at the Strand Bookstore in NYC’s East Village, I came across The Great Bridge by David McCullough. Of all places, the book was located spine out on a shelf in the cavernous fiction section. And what a spine it was, at least a couple of inches thick as I remember it. On the cover was an illustration of its subject and the subtitle read: “The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.”
By the weekend’s end, I had finished this masterpiece about the often madcap efforts to span the East River by the Roebling family. The read had everything I loved in a good novel: exquisite writing, robust characters, scenes that sprang alive, and narrative momentum. Best of all, as evidenced by the voluminous endnotes, it was all true.
Soon after, I put away my string of bad roman à clés and John Grisham readalikes. I devoured everything McCullough wrote as well as works by other masters of non-fiction. It is unsurprising then that my first published work was focused on the Chrysler Building, another NYC architectural marvel.
As many of you likely know, McCullough passed away earlier this month. For someone I had never personally met, I was struck by profound sadness. It came at the same time one of my closest childhood friends, John Clark, passed away from a massive heart attack. A champion swimmer, math whiz, teacher, and trader of rare books, he was only 51 years old. This double blow left me thinking about the haphazard, sometimes wonderful, sometimes not, influences on our paths. Besides providing true friendship and lots of laughs, John taught me the delightful joy of a little mischief. David gave me endless hours of reading enjoyment, but more importantly, he charted a trajectory for my writing.
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In this spirit, here is one of the most significant lessons I learned about the workcraft of David McCullough. First, however, let me set the scene, starting with movement, a signature of how he began most of his books as bestselling author Candice Millard recently reminded me in a moving tribute of her own.
Every day, David would walk out the back of his Martha’s Vineyard house to “The Bookshop.” It was a noble name for the self-built, wood-shingled shed where he wrote his award-winning histories. “Nothing good was ever written in a large room,” he once said. There was no computer, no telephone, not even a faucet. Illuminated by a green banker’s lamp, he pecked out his books on a Royal typewriter, surrounded by reams of his research. On the wall over his desk was the motto “Look at Your Fish.”
One might argue that this simple phrase was the secret to his success, and he explained its significance to a Paris Review interviewer in the fall of 1999:
“Look at your fish.” It’s the test that Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard naturalist, gave every new student. He would take an odorous old fish out of a jar, set it in a tin pan in front of the student, and say, Look at your fish. Then Agassiz would leave. When he came back, he would ask the student what he’d seen. Not very much, they would most often say, and Agassiz would say it again: Look at your fish.
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