Passages from books in print by William Zinsser
“We want you to come to our school and talk to our students about writing,” said the voice on the phone, introducing himself as the chairman of the school’s English department. I asked what he had in mind. “We’d like you to give our students some tips that will make them better writers,” he said.
Tips! The ugly little word hung in the air, exuding its aroma of illicit information. Bookies live on tips delivered, horseplayers on tips received, investors on stock tips, preferably hot, and taxpayers on tips about how to evade the tax code. College-bound students pay for tips on how to pass the SAT test.
The tip is presumed to be based on inside knowledge, giving its recipient an edge in outwitting life’s cruel odds, and never has the tip-dispensing industry been so alive and well, plying us in magazines and books and on television programs with maxims of salvation. Golf tips (keep your left arm straight), tennis tips (bend your knees), cooking tips (preheat the oven), gardening tips (buy a trowel), parenting tips (listen to your child), sex tips (take off your socks).
“I don’t do tips,” I told the man calling from the school’s English department. It’s not that I don’t have any; On Writing Well is full of what might be called tips. But that’s not the point of the book. It’s a book of craft principles that add up to what it means to be a writer.
(This book can be bought at Paul Dry Books)
I decided to start my journey at Mount Rushmore, the “shrine of democracy” in the Black Hills of South Dakota that consists of gigantic heads of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt drilled out of a mountain. If I was looking for iconic places, nowhere had the nation’s icons been so baldly foisted on the nation—four pharaohs in the sky. Nor was there another monument that so baldly displayed the traits that got America cleared and settled and built: raw energy, brash confidence, love of size, crazy indivdualism. In such a conuntry an immigrant’s son could literally move montains.
Beyond all that, I had a personal appointment to keep: Mount Rushmore and I grew up together. The carving of the four Presidents ran through my entire boyhood like an alternating current, stopping for long periods when the money ran out. I never quite took it seriously; it was another one of those Depression-era oddities, like the Dionne quintuplets. Somewhere out West, starting in 1927, a sculptor whose very name said “mad scientist”—Gutzon Borglum!—was blasting one of God’s mountains and promising to bring forth four immense heads. Even when the project was broke he was often in the news, badgering Congress for more money or hounding current occupants of the White House to turn up for dedication ceremonies that P. T. Barnum would have admired for their showmanship—both Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt made the long trip—and when he died in early 1941, at the age of 74, exhausted, having brought the heads almost to completion, he had forced his vision on the country. That autumn the work finally ended, and so did a part of my life. I put away Mount Rushmore and my boyhood and my baseball card collection and went off to war. By the time I came home, Mount Rushmore had crossed over into the American iconography.
(This book can be bought at Paul Dry Books)
As a boy I taught myself to type because I wanted to grow up to be a newspaperman—ideally, on the New York Herald Tribune, the paper I loved for its humanity and humor. My typing aptitude caught the attention of Colonel Monro McCloskey, the commander of my army unit in World War II. The colonel had an elevated sense of personal glory, and I was a captive sergeant. He put me to work writing company histories that would exalt his feats of leadership. Once, near the Algerian town of Blida, just under the Atlas Mountains, a sirocco from the Sahara swirled through the tent where I was typing, pelting me with hot particles of sand that I sometimes think are still lodged in my scalp. The next winter, near the Italian town of Brindisi, the particles swirling through my tent were cold and felt very much like snow.
Those wartime stints at a typewriter prepared me for a life of writing in odd places, starting in 1946, when I came home and got a job on the Herald Tribune— my boyhood dream come true. The Trib building, at 230 West 41st Street, extended through the block to 40th Street, and the city room, which housed most of the editors, reporters, rewrite men, sportswriters and columnists, occupied almost the entire fourth floor.
Decades of use by people not known for fastidious habits had given the room a patina of grime. The desks were shoved against each other and were scarred with cigarette burns and mottled with the stains of coffee spilled from a thousand cardboard cups. The air was thick with smoke. In summer it was recirculated but not noticeably cooled by ancient fans with black electrical cables that dangled to the floor. There was no air-conditioning, but we would have scorned it anyway. We were newspapermen, conditioned to discomfort, reared on movies like The Front Page, in which gruff men wearing fedoras barked at each other in sentences that moved as fast as bullets. I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world.
Not everyone was as charmed by the environment. A copyreader named Mike Misselonghites, who sat along the rim of the horseshoe-shaped copy desk, arrived at his post a half-hour early every day. He would take off his coat and walk to the men’s room. There he soaked and wadded up an armful of paper towels. Then he brought them back to the copy desk and scrubbed his area of the desk. Then he scrubbed his telephone and its cord. Then he lifted his chair onto the desk and scrubbed its seat and back and legs, not resting until his workplace was free enough of dirt and bacteria for him to safely go to work.
One day in 1992 I got a call from the dean of the Earlham School of Religion, a division of Earlham College, a Quaker college in Indiana. He told me that his school was establishing a program called “The Ministry of Writing,” and he asked if I would give the keynote talk. I said I would like nothing better. Then I asked, “How did you know?” How did he know that I’ve always regarded my writing as a ministry? I had never told anyone; I thought that would be presumptuous. He said, “It’s all through your work.”
That puzzled me, because it’s not all through my work—not, at least, overtly. God turns up occasionally as a governing presence, and my sentences take some of their cadences and allusions from the King James Bible. But there’s no mention of religious worship or religious belief—the residue of all those Sunday mornings spent in Protestant churches singing the hymns, reciting the Psalms and listening to the Word.
Yet on second thought I saw that the dean had me pegged. As a writer I try to operate within a framework of Christian principles, and the words that are important to me are religious words: witness, pilgrimage, intention. I think of intention as the writer’s soul. Writers can write to affirm and to celebrate, or they can write to debunk and destroy; the choice is ours. Editors may ask us to do destructive work for some purpose of their own, but nobody can make us write what we don’t want to write. We get to keep intention.
I always write to affirm—or, if I start negatively, deploring some situation or trend that strikes me as injurious, my goal is to arrive at a constructive point. I choose to write about people whose values I respect and who do life-affirming work; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives. Much of my writing has taken the form of a pilgrimage: to sacred places that represent the best of America, to musicians and other artists who represent the best of their art.
My mother came from a long line of devout Maine and Connecticut Yankees, and she thought it was a Christian obligation to be cheerful, It is because of her that I am cursed with optimism. The belief that I can somehow will things to go right more often than they go wrong—or to be an agent of God’s intention for them to go right—has brought many adjectives down on my head, none of them flattering: naive, credulous, simple-minded. All true. I plead guilty to positive thinking.
(Da Capo Press)
The sound of the bat is the music of spring training. It runs like a fugue through the lives of the players and the fans, brightening the day with memories and associations. No other sound is quite like it. To speak of the “crack” of the bat doesn't catch the music—the high-pitched resonance, the suggestion of an echo. But it does catch the energy of the moment: a ball literally springing off wood. In the physics of baseball this is the central collision, the origin of life.
(The University of Pittsburgh Press)
One day in 1987 I received a letter from Joan Countyman, head of the mathematics department at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. She had heard about my interest in the educational movement called “writing across the curriculum.”
“For many years,” she said, “I’ve been asking my students to write about mathematics as they learned it, with predictably wonderful results. Writing frees them of the idea that math is a collection of right answers owned by the teacher —a body of knowledge that she will dispense in chunks and that they have to swallow and digest. That's how most non-mathematicians perceive it. But what makes mathematics really interesting is not the right answer but where it came from and where it leads.”
The letter grabbed my attention. Surely mathematics was a world of numbers. Could it also be penetrated with words? Could a person actually write sentences that would lead him or her through a mathematical problem and suggest further questions? It had never occurred to me that the teacher wasn’t the sole custodian of mathematical truth, and it certainly never occurred to my elementary school math teacher, E. Grant Spicer, a man who so cowed me with his ownership of the right answer that I’ve had math anxiety ever since. I still consider it a lucky month when I balance my checkbook, and the task is accompanied by a slight pounding in my chest that I would otherwise take to be a cardiac event.
Such self-pity would have been despised by Mr. Spicer. He was one of those people who have "a head for figures," instantly certain that twelve times nine is—well, whatever it is. Confronted with a student who couldn’t produce the right answer, he would begin to turn red, a man betrayed by his vascular system, his round face and bald head crimson with disbelief that such dim-wittedness was at large in the next generation.
I had been aware of Frank Loesser since the 1930s as a deft and witty lyricist for Hollywood songs: “Small Fry” and “Two Sleepy People” (Hoagy Carmichael), “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” (Arthur Schwartz), “Let’s Get Lost” (Jimmy McHugh). I also knew that during World War II he had begun to compose his own music, writing such patriotic hits as “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” and the tender “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year.” But I wasn’t prepared for the broad and inventive score of his first Broadway musical, Where’s Charley?, in 1948, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for Guys and Dolls two years later. It struck me then—and still does—as the best of all Broadway scores.
Born in New York in 1910, Loesser was a musically gifted addition to a Jewish family steeped in classical music; his older brother Arthur Loesser was a concert pianist. But Frank’s ambitions were not Arthurian; he refused to study music formally and instead began trying to write popular songs. He was also in love with language. and after dropping out of City College he supported himself with odd jobs such as editing a small suburban newspaper and writing radio scripts and vaudeville sketches.
In 1931 his aptitude for language landed him a contract as a lyricist in Hollywood. There he spent a decade writing the words for songs in more than 60 movies, including “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” huskily sung by Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, and “(I've Got Spurs That) Jingle, Jangle, Jingle.” The distinctive Loesser humor, which would bloom so extravagantly in Guys and Dolls, couldn’t help surfacing in songs like “I Get the Neck of the Chicken,” music by Jimmy McHugh, and “Then I Wrote the Minuet in G,” music by Ludwig von Beethoven. Even more useful to the studios was Loesser’s knack for the expedient solution, especially when the screenplay took a turn for the Polynesian. The grass-skirts genre gave him one of his biggest hits, “Moon of Manakoora,” sung by Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane. Some others were “The White Blossoms of Tah-ni,” from Aloma of the South Seas, “Moon Over Burma,” from Moon Over Burma, and “Pagan Lullaby,” from Beyond the Blue Horizon, later recycled for another movie as “Malay Lullaby,” probably sung against the same swaying palms.
But essentially it was ten years of servitude. Typical of the indentured status of the Hollywood songwriter in those Depression years was Loesser’s collaboration with the young composer Irving Actman, for Universal Pictures, from 1936 to 1938. Some of their movies were Postal Inspector, Flying Hostess and Swing That Cheer, and some of the songs they wrote were “Bang, the Bell Rang,” “Let’s Have Bluebirds,” “Hot Towel” and “Chasing You Around.” Universal paid them $200 a week and retained ownership of the copyrights and most of the proceeds, plus the right to “adapt, arrange, change, transpose, add to or subtract” from their songs. The contract also obliged Loesser and Actman to comport themselves “with due regard to public conventions and morals” and to refrain from “any act that will tend to degrade them in society or bring them into public hatred, contempt, scorn or ridicule.”
(This book can be bought at David R. Godine Publisher)
One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.” Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather. As every parent knows, our children are not as fascinated by our fascinating lives as we are. Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and its accretions of anecdote and lore. “What exactly were those stories my dad used to tell about coming to America?” “Where exactly was that farm in the Midwest where my mother grew up?”
Writers are the custodians of memory, and that’s what this chapter is about: how to leave some kind of record of your life and of the family you were born into. That record can take many shapes. It can be a formal memoir—a careful act of literary construction. It can be an informal family history, written to tell your children and your grandchildren about the family they were born into. It can be the oral history that you extract by tape recorder from a parent or a grandparent too old or too sick to do any writing. Or it can be anything else you want it to be: some hybrid mixture of history and reminiscence. Whatever it is, it’s an important kind of writing. Memories too often die with their owner, and time too often surprises us by running out.
My father, a businessman with no literary pretensions, wrote two family histories in his old age. It was the perfect task for a man with few gifts for self-amusement. Sitting in his favorite green leather armchair in an apartment high above Park Avenue, he wrote a history of his side of the family—the Zinssers and the Scharmanns—going back to 19th-century Germany. Then he wrote a history of the family shellac business on West 59th Street that his grandfather founded in 1849. He wrote with a pencil on a yellow legal pad, never pausing—then or ever again—to rewrite. He had no patience with any enterprise that obliged him to reexamine or slow down. On the golf course, walking toward his ball, he would assess the situation, pick a club out of the bag and swing at the ball as he approached it, hardly breaking stride.
When my father finished writing his histories he had them typed, mimeographed and bound in a plastic cover. He gave a copy, personally inscribed, to each of his three daughters, to their husbands, to me, to my wife, and to his 15 grandchildren, some of whom couldn’t yet read. I like the fact that they all got their own copy; it recognized each of them as an equal partner in the family saga. How many of those grandchildren spent any time with the histories I have no idea. But I’ll bet some of them did, and I like to think that those 15 copies are now squirreled away somewhere in their homes from Maine to California, waiting for the next generation.
What my father did strikes me as a model for a family history that doesn’t aspire to be anything more; the idea of having it published wouldn’t have occurred to him. There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.
Not being a writer, my father never worried about finding his “style." He just wrote the way he talked, and now, when I read his sentences, I hear his personality and his humor, his idioms and his usages, many of them an echo of his college years in the early 1900s. I also hear his honesty. He wasn’t sentimental about blood ties, and I smile at his terse appraisals of Uncle X, “a second-rater,” or Cousin Y, who “never amounted to much.”
Rock Island is the most depressed of the Quad Cities, and Grant School, which is almost entirely black, is at the edge of poverty. Budget cuts have eliminated the arts programs that once gave some margin to the school day, and visiting artists are no part of the pupils' lives. Now 500 boys and girls file into the gymnasium and see two visiting artists. They sit on the floor and look up expectantly.
Ruff establishes instant contact with them—making them laugh, telling them about the origins of jazz, explaining the structure of the blues, getting them involved in the music they are about to hear. When he and Mitchell start to play the kids are turned on as if by a switch. Their faces and bodies come alive; they strain forward to listen to Ruff's bass and to watch Mitchell's hands. Mitchell can feel the energy though he never looks up. He plays with total commitment. Whatever is happening on the gymnasium floor is connected to the small boy in Dunedin, Florida, who was Ivory Mitchell, Jr.
(This book can be bought at Paul Dry Books)
The sportswriter Red Smith was one of my heroes. Not long before his own death he gave the eulogy at the funeral of another writer, and he said, “dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.” Living is the trick. That’s what we’re all given one chance to do well.
One reason I admire Red Smith was that he wrote about sports for 55 years, with elegance and humor, without ever succumbing to the pressure, which ruined many sportswriters, that he ought to be writing about something “serious.” Red Smith found in sportswriting exactly what he wanted to do and what he deeply loved doing. And because it was right for him he said more important things about American values than many writers who wrote about serious subjects–so seriously that nobody could read them.
When I was teaching at Yale, the poet Allen Ginsberg came to talk to my students, and one of them asked him: “was there a point at which you consciously decided to become a poet?” And Ginsberg said: ‘It wasn’t quite a choice; it was a realization. I was 28 and I had a job as a market researcher. One day I told my psychiatrist that what I really wanted to do was to quit my job and just write poetry. And the psychiatrist said, “why not?” And I said, “Well, what would the American Psychoanalytic Association say?” And he said, “There’s no party line.” So I did. We’ll never know how bit a loss that was for the field of market research. But it was a big moment for American poetry.
There’s no party line.
You can be your own party line. If living is the trick, what’s crucial for you is to do something that makes the best use of your own gifts and your own individuality. There’s only one you. Don’t ever let anyone persuade you that you’re somebody else.
My father was a businessman. His name was William Zinsser, and he had a business called William Zinsser & Company that had been founded by his grandfather, also named William Zinsser, who came to New York from Germany in 1849 with a formula for making shellac. He built a little house and a little factory way uptown at what is now 59th Street and Eleventh Avenue. I have an old photograph of those two buildings, all alone in an open field full of rocks that sloped down to the Hudson River. That business stayed there until 15 years ago– 125 years. It’s very rare for a business to stay in the same family on the same block in mid-Manhattan for a century, and I can assure you that it builds a sense of family continuity. One of the most vivid memories of my boyhood is how much my father loved his business. He had a passion for quality; he hated anything second-rate.
Seeing how much he loved his work and how good he was at it, I learned very early what has been a guiding principle of my life: that what we want to do we will do well. The opposite, however, is also true: what we don’t want to do we won’t do well–and I had a different dream. I wanted to be a newspaperman.
Unfortunately, my father had three daughters before he had me. I was his only son. He named me William Zinsser and looked forward to the day when I’d join him in the business. (In those Dark Ages the idea that daughters could run a company just as well as sons, or better, was still 20 years off).
It was a ready-made career for me–lifelong security–and maybe I also owed it to my mother and my sisters to carry on that hundred-year-old family tradition. But when the time came to choose, I knew that that just wasn’t the right thing for me to do, and I went looking for a newspaper job, and got one with the New York Herald Tribune, and I loved it from the start.
Of course, that was a moment of great pain for my father–and also for me. But my father never tried to change my mind. He saw that I was happy, and he wished me well in my chosen work. That was by far the best gift I ever received, beyond price or value–partly, of course, because it was an outright gift of love and confidence, but mainly because it freed me from having to fulfill somebody else’s expectations, which were not the right ones for me.
The Herald Tribune at that time was the best written and best edited newspaper in America. The older editors on that paper were the people who gave me the values that I’ve tried to apply to my work ever since, whatever that work has been. They were custodians of the best. When they made us rewrite what we had written and rewritten, it wasn’t only for our own good; it was for the honorableness of the craft.
But the paper began to lose money, and the owners gradually cheapened their standards in an effort to get new readers (which they therefore couldn’t get), and suddenly it was no longer a paper that was fun to work for, because it was no longer the paper I had loved. So on that day I just quit. By then I was married and had a one-year-old daughter, and when I came home and told my wife that I had quit she said, “what are you going to do now?” which I thought was a fair question.
And I said, “I guess I’m a freelance writer.” And that’s what I was, for the next eleven years. It’s a life full of risk: the checks don’t arrive as often as the bills, or with any regularity. But those 11 years were the broadest kind of education; no other job could have exposed me to so many areas of knowledge.
Also: In those eleven years I never wrote anything that I didn’t want to write. I’d like you to remember that. You don’t have to do unfulfilling work, or work that diminishes you. You don’t have to work for people you don’t respect. You’re bright enough to figure out how to do work that you do want to do, and how to work for people you do want to work for.
Near the end of the ’60s my wife said she thought it might be interesting to live somewhere besides New York and see what that was like. Well, to suggest to a fourth-generation New Yorker that there’s life outside New York is heresy. But I began to discuss the idea with friends, and one of them said, “you know, change is a tonic.”
I didn’t know that.
I was afraid of change; I think most people are.
But I seized on the phrase “change is a tonic” and it gave me the energy to go ahead. I had always wanted to teach writing: to try to give back some of the things I had learned. So I started sending letters to colleges all over the country–big colleges, small colleges, colleges nobody had ever heard of, experimental colleges that I actually went and visited; one was in a redwood forest in California and one seemed to be in a swamp in Florida–asking if they had some kind of place for me.
And they didn’t, because I was not an academic–I only had a BA degree, like the one you’ll have in about five minutes–and it was very discouraging. But finally one thing led to another. It always does. If you talk to enough people about your hopes and your dreams, if you poke down enough roads and keep believing in yourself, sooner or later a circle will connect. You make your own luck.
Well, one thing led to another, and one day I got a call from a professor at Yale who said he would take a chance and let me teach an experimental writing course for one term (by the way, that was almost two years after I had started sending all those letters). And on that slender thread we sold our apartment in New York and moved to New Haven, a city we had never seen before, and started a new life.
Yale was totally generous to me, though I was a layman from out of nowhere–a journalist, god forbid. I was allowed to initiate a nonfiction writing course, which the Yale English department later adopted, and I was also allowed to be master of one of Yale’s residential colleges. So those were rich years for me–years of both teaching and learning–because they were unlike anything I had done before.
Now the fact that Yale let me do all this is the reason I’m telling you the story. I didn’t fit any academic pattern. But finally, being different was not a handicap. Never be afraid to be different. Don’t assume that people you’d like to work for have defined their needs as narrowly as you think they have–that they know exactly who they want. What any good executive is looking for is general intelligence, breadth, originality, imagination, audacity, a sense of history, a sense of cultural context, a sense of wonder, a sense of humor, far more than he or she is looking for a precise fit.
America has more than enough college graduates every year who are willing to go through life being someone else’s precise fit. What we need are men and women who will dare to break the mold of tired thinking–who just won’t buy somebody saying, “we’ve always done it this way. This way is good enough.”
Well, obviously it’s not good enough or the country wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in. I don’t have to tell you all the areas where this wonderful country is not living up to its best dreams: Poverty. Inequality. Injustice. Debt. Illiteracy. Health care. Day care. Homelessness. Pollution. Arms-spending that milks us of the money that should be going into life-affirming work. There’s no corner of American life that doesn’t need radically fresh thinking.
Don’t shape yourself to a dumb job; shape the job to your strengths and your curiosity and your ideals. I’ve told you this story of my life for whatever pieces of it you may have wanted to grab as it went by… If I had to sum up why my work has been interesting it’s because I changed the direction of my life every eight or nine years and never did–or continued to do–what was expected.
I didn’t go into the family business; I didn’t stay at the Herald Tribune; I didn’t stay in New York. And I didn’t stay at Yale. In 1979 I made a resume, like every Yale senior (they showed me how to do it–how to make it look nice), and went job-hunting in New York, and got a job with the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was still another new field for me, and in many ways those eight years were the most interesting years of all. So don’t become a prisoner of any plans and dreams except your own best plans and dreams.
Don’t assume that if you don’t do what some people seem to be insisting that you do, in this goal-obsessed and money-obsessed and security-obsessed nation, it’s the end of the world. It’s not the end of the world. As my experience with my father proves, something very nourishing can happen–a blessing, a form of grace. Be ready to be surprised by grace.
And be very wary of security as a goal. It may often look like life’s best prize. Usually it’s not….For you, I hope today will be the first of many separations that will mean the putting behind you of something you’ve done well and the beginning of something you’ll do just as well, or better. Keep separating yourself from any project that’s not up to your highest standards of what’s right for you–and for the broader community where you can affect the quality of life: your home, your town, your children’s schools, your state, your country, your world.
If living is the trick, live usefully; nothing in your life will be as satisfying as making a difference in somebody else’s life. Separate yourself from cynics and from peddlers of despair. Don’t let anyone tell you it won’t work. Men and women, women and me, of the Wesleyan Class of 1988:
There’s no party line.
You make your own luck.
Change is a tonic.
One thing leads to another.
Living is the trick.