earliest documents of Francis

It is wondrous to discover and enjoy the grounding habit of becoming a reader. It is the antidote to anxiety, restlessness, distraction and malaise. Further, it is an excellent adventure! Here are some helpful tips:

1. Pace yourself. Each book has its own process of discovery and interior animation. Take the time you need and let the book unfold on its own terms.

2. Overthrow distractions. There will always be something else you can do. But remember: reading is doing something. It is feeding the mind and expanding soul, not to mention calming the nerves.

3. Give yourself permission to find which genre animates you, then delve into it. Simply because a friend says a book was “the best book I’ve read” and has lent it to you does not mean it will be the best you have ever read. You are not obliged to like what other people like.  In any case, please remember to return the loaned book!

4. Alternate reading between new offerings and proven classics. Time is the true test of all good writing.

5. Get a good chair or a comfy couch with a solid end table (where you will stack your books) and good lighting. This is your happy place.

Slow down.  Pick up a good book.


William Langewiesche, Photo by Wendy Murray, All rights reserved.

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 Waugh, Albert 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.

During a visit with Langewiesche for a story I was writing, I sat with him in a cafe and overheard him giving writing advice to his assistant by phone:


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.

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


Francis de Sales, 1567 – 1622

Saint Francis de Sales (1567 – 1622), was a French bishop whose views about “holy imagination” redefined devotion in his time, especially as it is expressed in the arts.

His book Finding God Wherever You Are offers helpful lessons for writers and artists of any time who find themselves entrenched in the struggles of trying to create:

1. Make decisions and then act.  “Our spirit should give vent whole-heartedly to these good movements of the will . . . But do not linger too long with general movements of the will. You have to change them into deliberate decisions.” This means that if your higher angels whisper to you a book idea, start writing.

2. Stay honorable. “The really patient servant of God bears equanimity of the humiliating trials as well as the honorable.” Don’t look for cheap short-cuts and never, ever, lift material from someone else’s writing without proper attribution.

3. Small mistakes at the beginning only grow larger if left unchecked: “Small mistakes made at the beginning of any project grown infinitely great as it progress . . . . Hence, you should know, before everything else, what is the virtue of devotion.” The best tool for finding a way into a project is to wait for that perfect first line. Once you have that, with diligence and fortitude, the rest of the project will flow naturally.

4. Protect your environment: “Nothing calms down an angry elephant so quickly as a the sight of a little lamb, and nothing breaks the force of cannon balls so easily as wool.” As Virginia Woolf has said, “A woman [and men] must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” 

5. Think through projects carefully, choose them clear-headedly, and stay the course. “We are not to question our choice, but devotedly, calmly, steadfastly keep it up, carry it through. Although difficulties, temptations and many different things may beset our path, to make us wonder if we have done right, we are to remain resolute and take no notice . . . . Once our decision has been taken with God’s help, we need never fear but that God will aid us to carry it through.” I’m thinking of Goethe who wrote: Do not hurry. Do not rest.

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