"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.
This could go on for days. The student would be encouraged to draw the fish but could use no tools for the examination, just hands and eyes. Samuel Scudder, who later became a famous entomologist and expert on grasshoppers, left us the best account of the “ordeal with the fish.” After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, I see how little I saw before.
Then Scudder had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: Paired organs, the same on both sides. Of course! Of course! Agassiz said, very pleased. So, Scudder naturally asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, Look at your fish.
I love that story and have used it often when teaching classes on writing because seeing is so important in this work. Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what’s been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new. Seeing is as much the job of a historian as it is of a poet or a painter, it seems to me. That’s Dickens’s great admonition to all writers, “Make me see.”
David had an abundance of such amazing advice on life, work, and writing, but this memory stands above the rest. As a measure of his influence, I asked for and culled the views of several popular historians on this giant of letters. I will leave you with the words they shared.
Rest in peace, David, and my old pal John. May you be seeing new vistas.
“From David McCullough we learned that it is never enough to simply describe the past. To read one of his books is not just to understand the people who populate its pages, but to feel like you know them. As a reader, the only way to achieve that kind of intimacy is to find a writer like McCullough, whose own fascination with his subjects is palpable in every word he wrote. Unfortunately, there is no other writer like McCullough. We have lost one of the greats, but how lucky we were to have learned from him, and to know that, every time we reach for one of his books, we are setting off on an adventure. Be ready to hit the ground running, because somebody’s going to be on the move.” –Candice Millard, author of River of the Gods
“David McCullough was a giant and guiding light for all nonfiction writers. He will be missed, but his legacy will live on.” –Larry Loftis, author Code Name: Lise
“Mr. McCullough was a generous mentor as well as an inspiration. At one point, when I was very young, we were talking about the various founders, and he said, ‘I’ll do John Adams, and you should do Benjamin Franklin,’ …I felt I was able to share a feast with the master chef.” –Walter Isaacson, author of The Code Breaker
“I was just using his book Truman today while working on a new book proposal. McCullough understood that history was about people, and he put the spotlight where it belonged on individuals ranging from George Washington and Harry Truman to the Wright brothers. He likewise brought a storyteller’s deft touch to his art, which not only makes his work appeal to far more readers but also a delight to read.” –James Scott, author of Black Snow & Target Tokyo
“He used a typewriter, so the flow of the prose and the narrative development felt very well planned, and the writing was precise and built on strong foundations. You really have to know where you are going if you don’t use a computer, and there’s something about typing that encourages clear writing.” –Alex Kershaw, author of Against All Odds & The Bedford Boys
“A big part of my job is visiting schools, giving talks to auditoriums full of middle schoolers, and I’m always looking for some way to win over the crowd. One time a librarian tried to help by introducing me as “sort of like a David McCullough of young adult history books.” The students were unmoved. But I was stunned, and so flattered that I had a hard time getting started. McCullough’s work has had such a huge influence on me, especially the way he weaved quirky, often funny, human details into sweeping sagas. And, as a true master, he made it look easy. I started to try to explain all this to the students—but gave up and told them stories. I like to think McCullough would have done the same.” –Steve Sheinkin, author of Fallout & Bomb
“My favorite is Mornings on Horseback; his Johnstown Flood first awakened my imagination to the power of narrative in historical nonfiction.” –Erik Larson, author of The Splendid and the Vile
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