The art of the rewrite


Writing, Jonathan Harr explained to the two dozen students and faculty gathered in Rosenwald 405 Tuesday evening, "is, thankfully, one arena in life where you can perform badly and then take it all back and do it again. It's not done until it's done."

That moment of completion, it seems, can't be rushed. It took Harr, an author, journalist, and the University's 2008 Robert Vare Nonfiction Writer in Residence, eight years and five publishing-contract extensions to finish his first book, A Civil Action (Random House, 1995). When it finally came out, his account of a Massachusetts town's legal showdown with industrial polluters won a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award—and spent two years on New York Times best-seller lists. In 1998 it became an Oscar-nominated movie.

At Rosenwald, Harr read a few scenes and vignettes from a partially written New Yorker article. This past fall he spent six weeks in eastern Chad, along the Darfurian border, where tens of thousands of people fleeing violence and genocide have settled into sprawling refugee camps. Harr talked to international aid workers from Africa and beyond, refugees living in a camp called Farchana, and missionaries and residents in towns nearby. The story he ended up with, he said, is "a jigsaw puzzle" that he's still trying to shape into a coherent whole. Every few weeks he receives an e-mail from his New Yorker editor: "Any progress?" Harr's answer so far: "It's not done yet."


Photos: Jonathan Harr (photo by Sandro Cutri); a refugee camp in eastern Chad.

May 14, 2008