Unless you’re brilliant or incredibly lucky or stupidly wealthy, you’ve got to learn from others. I have a few pet writers whose style I admire and whose progress I’ve followed over the years. I first discovered William Langewiesche while researching my first book, Light This Candle. I wanted to know what it felt like to be in the cockpit with my subject, naval aviator/astronaut Alan Shepard. My father, a pilot, helped some, and he also referred me to a couple books about flight, including the 1944 classic, Stick and Rudder, written by Langewiesche’s father, Wolfgang. That led me to Langewiesche’s own book on flying, Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight. I’ve swapped emails with him over the years, and when the Vanity Fair writer came to Seattle in late 2009 to read from his new book, Fly By Wire, about the landing of a commercial jet on the Hudson River, we met at a coffee shop. Unfortunately, my video interview failed – the audio got mangled (by a bad mic). So I’ve transcribed portions of our Q&A…
First, some background info: Langewiesche grew up admiring the work of such legendary non-fiction masters as John McPhee, and from an early age knew he wanted to be a writer. He flew airplanes to pay for college and kept writing, “but failing, for years.” He never wanted to write for newspapers, or to pursue fiction, and instead was always interested in long-form literary non-fiction. He tried a novel and that failed. He picked up flying jobs over the years, but never wanted to become full-time professional pilot. He felt “driven forward by no other alternatives – keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.” Finally, he submitted a story to the Atlantic, which was rejected but attracted the interest of an editor that led to his seventeen-year stint there. He left in 2006 to become the international correspondent at Vanity Fair. He’s the author of eight books.
Q. Where do you write?
A. “It could be almost anywhere. I try not to write in hotels. That’s pretty grim. But I do it if I have to. Usually I find someplace to park myself … I’ve done a lot of work in coffee shops but it’s not the best environment. It’s nice to have some peace and quiet. I do not like music playing, normally. Sometimes, if it’s really late at night, I’ll put on some music and slouch in a chair and keep working. Sometimes that’s effective. Usually not. Usually that’s a sign that it’s time to take a break.”
Q. When do you write?
A. “I write when I’m ready to write, when I know what I want to say… I write from morning until late at night. Seven days a week… I don’t know if the sun is shining. I don’t know if its cold or hot. I don’t know who anybody else is in the world except for the occasional interruption of phone calls or emails … I wake up in the morning and work until I can’t work anymore, and that’s usually fairly late at night… Get up and hit it again. Just keep going. I don’t know any other way to write.”
(He added that he often works one to three hours at a time, takes a break to walk or read or daydream, and then gets back at it “full on.”)
Q. How do you write?
A. He started with IBM selectric but switched to computer as soon as possible, and found his writing improved thanks to the word processor. He currently writes on a Mac, “but that’s totally irrelevant. Whatever screen is available.” He previously would write on the screen, print a draft, make corrections by hand, then revise. Now he writes and edits right on the screen, and believes the power of word processing has eliminated barriers to writing. No longer is the process broken into first and second drafts. “Hell, there are, like, a hundred drafts, and they’re constantly flowing at all times, this very informal relationship between work and the revision of that work.” The result of the constant editing is: “When I’m done I’m done. What I turn in is extremely clean copy … Every comma has been thought through, every sound, the rhythm, everything.”
(He added that he’s had the benefit of working closely with a longtime trusted editor, Cullen Murphy, at the Atlantic, at Vanity fair, and on his books.)
Q. How do you keep going?
A. “It’s not so much stamina as paranoia, fear of failure. The problem with writing is: if you don’t do it, nobody does it for you … You have to know that every time you take a break, it stops. It’s absolutely a one-on-one relationship with the work. There’s no team involved. So it’s quite unlike other forms of labor.”
(He added that coffee helps, but for him, not alcohol.)
Q. What role does self-discipline play?
A. “It’s very lonely work, as you know. I mean, it’s hard to think of lonelier work. I don’t know about discipline. That question comes up occasionally and it seems alien to me. I mean, it’s not an issue. Discipline compared to what? Compared to living on the street? Compared to failure? What choice do you have but to do the work?”
Although my video interview was damaged, I managed to film and edit portions of his talk that night at Town Hall.
Also, here’s a good interview with Media Bistro.
And here’s a good biography and links to books and articles at The New New Journalism.