How I Write: William Langewiesche
Published: July 2, 2004
|Were there a literary award for the fine art of reconstructing major events through careful observation and research and a precise, incisive writing style, William Langewiesche would be an odds-on favorite. As a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, his "reconstructions" have included the enormous dismantling of the World Trade Center; the 1994 sinking of the Swedish ferry Estonia that killed 852 people; and the 1999 crash of EgyptAir flight 990, which he says was intentional. His other work includes a journey across the Sahara and a meditation on flight. A former professional pilot for 20 years who always wanted to be a writer, Langewiesche, 49, lives in Europe with his family.|
Book credits: The Outlaw Sea, American Ground, Cutting for Sign, Sahara Unveiled and Inside the Sky.
Writing is a privileged profession. If you can do it, it gives you an excuse to go out in the world, and the world is a really interesting place. It gives you a universally understood reason to knock on doors and ask questions. Everywhere in the world, people understand roughly what it is that a writer does.
To have that shingle sort of hang out as you crisscross the world gives you enormous freedom--freedom to explore things where otherwise they'd think you are nuts: "What business is it of yours? Get out of here."
So it's not at all like being a tourist--a writing profession allows a deep relationship with the world. And then the actual process of writing allows you to think about it. You often don't know what you really have until you sit down to write it, and the reason is not that you don't know what's in your notes. But you haven't been forced to put it into a form that communicates, and that process is a very severe, intellectually rigorous discipline, which is, I suppose ... satisfying.
Get up early in the morning, work damn hard all day and come in very late at night, and do it the next day and the next day. I keep it up till the work is done, and then, of course, I'm immediately into the next project. ... I agonize over every sentence. Sometimes it takes me a day to write a paragraph. My kind of writing is mostly hard-core narrative, and it just doesn't come fast.
|Dealing with complex topics:|
I think it's a question of cutting to the chase, which is very hard for people to do, especially if they are overeducated. The trick is to educate yourself deeply on a subject and then not go where your education would naturally lead you--don't get into earnest explanation and the earnest downloading of everything you know about some subject. You need to have a certain distance from your subject to make those judgments. But what it amounts to is, boil it down to the essentials and cut out the peripherals as much as you can. That doesn't mean cut out the complexity.
There is no formula to addressing the reader (or there shouldn't be), and there's no formula to the career path either. Writing is the kind of thing, as someone said recently, that can be learned but is very difficult to teach. ... You have to learn it yourself. It's a tough racket, is what it is.
Of course, the world is not all magazines. Book writing is the great liberation. People have used that liberation to write a lot of drivel, but for somebody who wants to write well ... book writing provides unlimited freedom. You can go as long or as short as you want; you can make a living doing it.
There's a need for good books. The idea that the book-publishing business is somehow a closed business is total nonsense. These are big machines that need to be fed, and they're desperate for good material. All a writer has to do is provide it, and it's all right there.
--Posted July 2, 2004