Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Advice to Writers from a Modern Classic: William Langewiesche

By Wendy Murray
William Langewiesche, best-selling author, international correspondent for Vanity Fair, and (it so happens) a pilot,  won the rare honor of being chosen by the editors of Penguin Modern Classics (U.K.) to publish a volume of his writings about flight, thus joining the ranks of George Orwell, Evelyn WaughAlbert Camus,  Italo Calvino, Capote, Steinbeck and Gandhi.
Titled Aloft  (Feb 2010), Penguin chose the topic of flight from Langewiesche’s writing corpus because, says PMC-U.K. editor Helen Conford, “William possesses a unique perspective on flight and his writing is almost poetic in the way it captures the first century of flight.” It is “a rare event” that a living writer should be numbered among other classic (deceased) authors.  “PMC publishes only those authors whose writing they believe will be recognized in a hundred years’ time,” says Conford.
Langewiesche's approach to writing is a matter of "connecting the dots," getting on the ground, sniffing out the story, "going from Point A to Point B, and taking as long as it takes."
“I could write about anything,” he says.  We were sharing a meal at a pub and he points to a red bucket perched slightly to the left outside the door. “I could write a story about that red bucket. Why is it red? What is its diameter? Why does it carry two parallel ridges around its circumference? What is its metallic composition? Tin? Who made it? Why does he make buckets? Is he a peasant-tycoon--you know, a regular guy who doesn’t give a shit about superficiality? They get to the inner essence of things--the stuff you find in junkyards.”
On another occasion I overheard him giving writing advice to his assistant by phone.
William Langewiesche
On using the first person:
“If first person relates to what you are feeling, drop it out. No one’s concerned about you. Use the first person naturally, but never about yourself.”
On length:
“You’re not going too long. Go long. Make it 30,000 words. We’ll cut it later. Go long. Go long. Just tell the story. Grab the reader by the balls."
On fact-checkers
“Forget the brackets. Why burden the reader with the fact-checker neurosis? I don’t write for fact-checkers."
About his writing process:
I'm a writer. Even when I was a pilot I was a writer. I read an enormous amount of material on what I'm working on but I never take notes on what I read. I don't even underline anymore. I just read and allow myself to forget what is naturally forgotten and remember what I remember. I feel no obligation to cite anything. I like my prose unburdened with apparatus. I take relatively few notes. I listen carefully. I like to use a recorder because it adds the ability to revisit things in a way taking notes doesn't. It's not a crutch, though it's a pain in the ass. I also prefer to do my own research. It makes my work less encyclopedic.
The American version of Aloft,  available at Amazon, etc.
I see writing as highly tactile, like sculpting, forming something, smoothing it with hand strokes. Where before there was nothing, in the end there is a sculpture, an object. Occasionally it doesn't happen that way, either because of my own inability or because I don't have the right subject matter. You can get stuck with an overly linear, overly complex, overly generalized text—all kinds of overlys—that can screw up the aesthetic of a piece. At the same time, I hate aesthetics for aesthetics sake. That is a form of masturbation. Rule number one in writing is Don't Insult the Reader. It's a great insult to a reader to waste reading time. You have this very precious relationship with each reader, and that reader is probably smarter than I am.

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