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Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Another Zinsser gem

Writers are the custodians of memory, according to William Zinsser, one of the foremost writers and teachers of writing. But the best advice given when writing about your life is to think small—as in self-contained little incidents that are vivid in your memory. You're likely to remember those incidents because they contain a larger truth that readers will recognize in their own lives.

Now isn't that just the most practical piece of writing advice? Zinsser's new book, "Writing About Your Life" is filled with all kinds of gems. But what makes it so inspiring is that he takes the reader on his own journey, using his own writing to illustrate how to write about your life.

"Who gave you permission to think your story will interest the rest of us? Well, I give you permission. All writers are embarked on a quest of some kind, and you're entitled to go on yours," he writes. Amen! The only thing you have to do, and this has been a recurring theme on Creative Ink, is to be true to yourself.

Of course there is much more involved in writing, including constructing narrative, observing, reporting, but also making the personal connection and resonance. His advice: select, focus and reduce.

My first encounter with William Zinsser was in Journalism School at Ohio University. In my senior year, one wise professor gave us a reading list of books that would help in our career. Zinsser's "On Writing Well" was on top of that list. I didn't buy it right away, but instead purchased it a year later out of desperation when I felt I was stagnating in my job as a reporter at Sun Newspapers.

It was winter 1990 and I had holed up in my little two-room efficiency apartment in Lakewood. (Wasn't much of a place, but it was mine.) I had stopped to pick up Zinsser's book from the old Doubleday bookstore at the Galleria. Since I didn't have a couch (nor the room for one), I climbed into my bed and, with the rattling and clanging of the radiator kicking on, I cracked open the book.

Zinsser opens with the story of being on a panel with a surgeon who also wrote for magazines. The doctor talked about how much fun it was to be a writer. At that point I was thinking I may have been steered wrong by my professors. But then Zinsser said the words that hooked me then and ever since: "I then said that writing wasn't easy and it wasn't fun. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed."

At last! I had found the person who could speak to ME! I proceeded to read throughout the night until I finished the book. I strolled into the newsroom the next morning a tad weary, but thoroughly convinced that I could make a difference in my writing. I had been tossing around an idea about a series of articles on integration in the suburbs I covered. It was clearly outside the scope of my regular beat, but was something I felt compelled to pursue. Armed with the belief that I could handle the extra work, I went into my editor's office and pitched my idea. He bought it, I wrote it and it won an award from the Suburban Newspapers of America.

My copy of "On Writing Well" is now yellowed and dog-eared, with post-it notes marking some of my favorite passages. But when I need a jolt of sound advice and the affirmation that my chosen profession is not a hopeless cause for me, I pick up the book and remember that writing IS hard work, but it's so worth the effort. In the end, it's the only profession I've ever wanted to pursue.

I realized that again this weekend. What resonated for me in "On Writing Well" was Zinsser's willingness to share his own struggles and decisions about his writing. He made himself available as he also did in "Writing About Your Life." Zinsser is in his early 80s now, but age is really about how you feel. He's still creating and writing and—if you read his book—you'll learn he's also a jazz musician (jazz music is another of my great loves). "If you can do something that gives people pleasure, you ought to do it," he advises.

As much as his book is a guide about writing, it's also a book about living.
"It's a privilege to write for one other person. Do it with gratitude and with pleasure," he says.

I'm putting together a panel for freelancers at the SPJ National Convention in September. And I'm thinking we should create an opportunity for Zinsser. He's the godfather of so many writers, and we'll be in his beloved New York City. Maybe I'll give him a call.

"To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life." Poet Pablo Neruda

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