More from William Langewiesche
Published: July 2, 2004
|His goal when crafting an article for a general magazine: It's very clear to me what is involved on that level, and that is the attempt to communicate with the reader on a second-by-second, clause-by-clause, very intimate level, with a strong sense that at the slightest misstep the reader will get off the ride. And the missteps come in many different forms. The most general one is to waste the reader's time. It's important to me never to do that. On the other hand, information by itself is not what my writing is about, or I think what good writing generally is about. Even writing which appears to be nothing but information, if it's good writing, is never really about that. It is an aesthetic vehicle that carries information. I think it's very important never to forget the reader's need for aesthetic pleasure.|
It's something like listening to music. There are elements of rhythm and sound, and also there's kind of an intellectual aesthetic, which is the pleasure which readers can derive from certain turns of the mind or of the narrative flow. … There are many different levels of the aesthetic that are involved in narration, and I'm very aware of it at all times--terrified of losing the reader.
His use of dramatic anecdote: You want to tell stories. Stories are both entertaining and also fundamentally revealing. Stories avoid the problem that afflicts so much writing: of generalization. Which is anathema to me.
Sitting down to write after researching and reporting: I don't really have a mountain of material; I have a mountain of material in my mind. I think that for a writer, observation is much more important than the accumulation of documents. And then the question is, what kind of notes are you taking on your observations? There are certain things that you must have documented.
I basically don't see this [organizing a mass of material] as being a problem at all, to tell you the truth. You're aware at all times when you're in the research part of any given writing project that you must produce a good piece of writing about this. So that tends to focus the mind a lot. It focuses the memory, and there's an automatic inherent organization under way from the very start of any project. You're not just flying wildly all over the map. And the rest of it flows from that.
There are mechanical things I do a lot of to boil it down--I'm talking about all of the documents and notes and written information one has. But none of that would mean anything if you didn't also have a strong mental view [that is] not written down; an idea of what this material is, and what's interesting about it, and maybe more importantly, what's not interesting about it.
I always have an outline I'm working with, but the outline changes all the time. And it's certainly nothing like a formal outline, but it can be quite complex. I just do it on a piece of white paper ... a scribbled map, which nobody would be able to understand.
Taking notes in difficult situations: If you're in physically rigorous areas, you don't take notes in those conditions at that moment, but the moment you emerge from it, whether it's an hour later or that night, you take a lot of notes. If you're in a situation where you can't take notes because it's physically impossible to do, you remember all the more clearly all the visual details and that sort of thing. I think usually you can find moments, even in physically rigorous times, when you can sort of perch on a rock somewhere and scribble at least some cryptic notes.
Using a tape recorder: I use a tape recorder only during conversations with people that are preferably over a cup of coffee in a cafe somewhere or a teahouse in some obscure part of the world or something like that. But only in those conditions, and only with certain people. It takes a fairly sophisticated and worldly person to be able to handle a reporter or writer sticking a microphone or tape recorder under his nose. So you have to judge who the person is and the extent to which you can tape-record.
Usually, a tape recorder is like pulling a camera out and pointing it at people. [In my kind of reporting,] you want to be either a fly on the wall or an eye-to-eye equal participant. You want to give of yourself as much as the others are giving of themselves. You want to talk to people, you want to listen to them, talk to them naturally.
You don't want to create this distance--as much as you can avoid it. The extreme [of this distance] would be: Let's say we all writers need to wear a certain uniform. If you look, for instance, at the World Trade Center [following 9/11, where Longewiesche spent six months after receiving exclusive journalistic access], the journalists who would come through would be paraded through under escort and they all had these giant badges. They were visible from halfway across the site. That's a real problem, obviously. If you have a giant red badge that says PRESS!, that's just awful. I rarely have had to do that. Sometimes in certain conditions with the U.S. military, like inside the Pentagon, you can't avoid it. But actually even with the military out in the field, I don't have to wear a badge. Or if somebody gives you a badge, you kind of put it in your pocket.
Influences on his work: Like everybody of the modern generation of nonfiction writers in the United States--in my case, when I was in high school or even younger--I became aware of John McPhee at The New Yorker. McPhee was showing that it was possible to bring a certain sensibility and care to the language in nonfiction writing and make a living doing it, and that people would actually read it. Now, my writing is not at all like McPhee's; the topics I choose are not at all like McPhee's topics; they tend to be more mainstream. But very early in my life, I was impressed by McPhee and I thought, that would be a nice job. I could either be, you know, a dentist, or be like McPhee. I thought, well, I'll be like McPhee.
You can find all kinds of writers who were in nonfiction doing tremendous work, obviously. For instance, Graham Greene. Or even in fiction--Graham Greene again. Or Joseph Conrad, fiction. In the case of Conrad, certainly not a stylistic influence, because he's antique--or, he's both antique and still avant garde. But I do think you can go as far back as that and find a string of writers who have shaped all of our sensibilities and our awareness of what good writing kind of looks like in nonfiction.
Then, of course, in modern times, in my case it's very much V.S. Naipaul. In both fiction and nonfiction, [he] was a very large influence. And then there are specific [authors or] books [that are] surprising and very good. For instance, Donald Worster, the historian--he's sort of a New Wave, leftish historian and environmentalist [author of Dustbowl and Rivers of Empire]. Now there's a professor who's writing well.
Another guy who comes to mind right away is Michael Herr with Dispatches, a book which is nothing but a prose poem. It's so concentrated, so aware of sound and rhythm, so matched to the subject, that it is nothing but one huge poem. I guess another person would be Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie. The writing in there is straightforward, but the larger scale, the use of one figure in Vietnam, is very influential in a way, just from a writing point of view.
His path to writing: I went to Stanford--but don't broadcast that. ... I got my first job as a pilot at 18 and did that all the way through school. And so I did very little studying and a whole lot of flying, much to my detriment actually, as a writer and all that. Although I have a degree from Stanford, I learned nothing and have no particular education, as far as I'm concerned.
I worked 20 years as a professional pilot, flying small airplanes, corporate jets. I always wanted to be a writer. I never wanted to fly for the airlines or to fly at all, if I could avoid it.
Why he got detoured from writing early on: Because I grew up in an aviation family. [His late father, Wolfgang Langewiesche, was a test pilot as well as a writer and author of a classic flight manual, Stick and Rudder.] I would take jobs that would allow me to write at all times. And I worked seven days a work, but what I would do typically is take a job that would allow me to concentrate a lot of flying into a few days and allow the other days for me to write. I also would take jobs that would allow me to quit on a regular basis and go traveling, and I did that, trying to understand the world. And I was writing throughout that time, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But usually not.
How being a professional pilot shaped him as a writer: Cullen Murphy, my dear friend at The Atlantic, claims that it has, that it gave me an overview perspective of the world, as if it were flying by in an airplane. I would say that that view, which I probably do have and probably does infuse a lot of my writing, is as much due to my interest in reading history, which I've always had, as it is to flying airplanes. The view you have from an airplane is very similar to a historical view.
On the wealth of detail and depth in his articles: A lot of that has to do with the fact that there are magazines like The Atlantic. There are a few that allow that kind of work to be done. I mean, if somebody's telling you that you can only write 5,000 words on a subject and that's long, well, you just can't do it. You can't do that kind of work; you don't have the space. So if you want to look for credit, you've got to look at the fact that there are people willing to fund magazines like that, there are people willing to read magazines like that, that magazines like that still matter. And that there are editors like Cullen Murphy around, or Mike Kelly or Bill Whitworth or David Remnick.
There are a few of these people around who allow good writing to be done, and I think ultimately, it's because there are readers around who want it. And so ultimately, it's because of the readers. I mean, it all comes back to the readers; that's what this whole business is about. And there are a lot of really, really smart readers, and there's all this myth, in my opinion, about short attention spans. It's total nonsense.
--Posted July 2, 2004