Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: Elie Wiesel

Next week, we’ll be participants in the weeklong Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. It’s a chance to step back from our material and think consciously about how we write. As we gear up for the intensive workshop, we’re using this opportunity to think about writing in general and to remind ourselves of the craft and methods we’re honing every time we revise a chapter in the book manuscript or draft a blog post here.

Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel

For this reason, we found the chance to hear Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel at Chapman University during his annual visit as a Presidential Fellow especially well timed. Many of the week’s events and conversations focused on writers, writing, and literature. We soaked up as much as we could and share some of Wiesel’s wisdom here.

In an on-stage conversation with our colleague Tom Zoellner, who has written about uranium for Lofty Ambitions, Wiesel talked about his days working as a reporter as well as the fiction and nonfiction writing he’s done. Wiesel asserted, “Had I not written Night, I would not have written any other book.” He might have remained a journalist, but that first novel opened a new way of life and writing for him.

“Silence is good for a novel,” Wiesel said, “but not for journalism.” Nonfiction reveals. Nonfiction gives voice. In another conversation with librarians, he put it a different way: “[Silence is] fraught with meaning. […] Silence is good for literature, but not life.”

Tom Zoellner

Of his writing process for his books, he said that he overwrites, producing long, inclusive drafts for his novels. “Sculpture is what you take off,” he said, indicating that his novels are formed by deciding what is not essential. Perhaps, he was also suggesting that erasing or deleting creates the silences that he finds crucial for literary works. In the conversation with librarians, he talked more specifically about this sculpting, saying, “A 500-page manuscript can become two hundred pages very quickly. […] Only the bones remain. No flesh.” With Zoellner, he joked, “You sometimes have more books in the wastebasket.” Most importantly, he intimated, the writer must return to the desk. “You write,” he insisted, “even though you know maybe you will fail.”

And how does he manage to delete passages that are beautifully written but not essential? “I’ve never fallen in love with my words.” He asks himself what his words want to do and what they want to be. His words have goals and responsibilities; his books are something in addition to conveying something.

Morality is a responsibility Wiesel feels as a writer. About the role of morality in literature and the responsibility of the writer to compose a moral book, he said, “I cannot speak for all writers. I can barely speak for myself. It is a choice.” In another conversation, he added, “The main thing is the respect for the other.” He also pointed out, “We cannot intervene only with words. […] Only words can produce change.” This statement applies generally, of course, but the Holocaust survivor speaks from personal experiences as well. Ultimately, though, as he told Zoellner, “The role of the writer is to tell a good story.”

The Jemez Mountains were home to three Native American peoples, and some of their lodgings and ceremonials structures are accessible on a visit to Bandelier National Monument.
Doug at Bandelier National Monument

In the conversation with the university’s librarians, Wiesel expanded on his sense of his own writing process, saying, “I know when it’s finished. I almost know from the beginning.” While he may know when a book is finished, that process takes a long time. Wiesel doesn’t use a computer, yet he asserted, “I rewrite everything three times.” We grew up and started writing before computers were widely available, and we didn’t have a simple word processor until the end of our college years, yet the thought of rewriting a book-length manuscript by hand now sounds daunting.

As we take time to step back from our writing to think consciously about craft for a few weeks, we also remind ourselves that writers learn by reading. Wiesel pointed to different books he appreciated for different reasons, Albert Camus’ The Plague for its philosophy more than for its literary accomplishment and The Stranger for the absurdity. “The library is sacred,” he said. “The greatest moment is before I begin reading. […] I invite myself into the book.”

What better sentiment right now? Off to Santa Fe for a week and on the verge of summer, we look forward to inviting ourselves into the next book. We relish this long moment of anticipation.

Read our next post “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: Good Prose HERE.


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