Tag Archives: William Zinsser

Values & the writer

Here’s a writing tip from William Zinsser: get intention.

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

In this blog largely about craft, sometimes I must remind myself that intention is more important than craft. That is, the spirit behind the work is at least as important as that which makes it visible. I saw this years ago in daily journalism, where craft was enshrined to avoid talking about the messy, subjective self (I wrote about this here in 2008, in “Between Self and Story“). Of course the self and its niceties cannot become manifest, cannot become art without . . . craft. Craft is the refinery that processes the ocean of self into the sweet elixir of art. So craft, sure—it’s what we can readily discuss. But who we are determines what we see and what we ponder, which determines what we write.

William Zinsser expresses this notion beautifully in The Writer Who Stayed, a compilation of his concise columns for The American Scholar. Here’s Zinsser on intention:

Zinsser-The Writer Who Stayed Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package—a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is an engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid.

In my own work I operate within a framework of Christian values, 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 want us to do destructive work to serve some agenda 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. I choose to write about people whose values I respect; 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 writers and musicians who represent the best of their art. Tips didn’t get them there.

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Aaron Gilbreath’s post explicates the practice of a legendary New Yorker journalist whose exhaustive immersions allowed him to write with great freedom in reconstructing his subjects’ realities. My own views of Mitchell’s practice were influenced, like Aaron’s, by William Zinsser’s endorsement in On Writing Well, considered the gold standard for mainstream magazine journalism.

Aarongilbreath's Blog

As much as I read, I don’t find myself rereading too many books. I’m no Larry McMurtry, revisiting the same book year after year. Mostly, I reread essays, and the pieces that I find myself returning to with most frequency were written by Luc Sante, Calvin Trillin and Joseph Mitchell.

In his documentary stories for the New Yorker, pioneering nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell celebrated both eccentrics and the average Joe, and in turn, he immortalized a scruffier, working class era of New York City. He also wrote what might be the longest quotes in our genre.

When first published in 1956, Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” contained 12,056 words; over nine thousand of them were directly attributed to Hunter as quotations. Many of the stories in Mitchell’s book The Bottom of the Harbor are like that. “Up in the Old Hotel” contains a quote that runs for over four pages…

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William Zinsser on Anglo-Saxon’s glory

“The English language is derived from two main sources. One is Latin, the florid language of ancient Rome. The other is Anglo-Saxon, the plain languages of England and northern Europe. The words derived from Latin are the enemy—they will strangle and suffocate everything you write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set you free.

“How do those Latin words do their strangling and suffocating? In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in –ion . . . Here’s a typical sentence: ‘Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.’ That means ‘Before we fixed our money problems.’ Believe it or not, this is the language that people in authority in America routinely use—officials in government and business and education and social work and health care. They think those long Latin words make them sound important. It no longer rains in America; your TV weatherman will tell that you we’re experiencing a precipitation probability situation.”

“So if those are the bad nouns, what are the good nouns? The good nouns are the thousands of short, simple, infinitely old Anglo-Saxon nouns that express the fundamentals of everyday life: house, home, child, chair, bread, milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road . . .  words that are in our bones, words that resonate with the oldest truths. When you use those words, you make contact—consciously and also subconsciously—with the deepest emotions and memories of your readers. Don’t try to find a noun that you think sounds more impressive or “literary.” Short Anglo-Saxon nouns are your second-best tools as a journalist writing in English.

“What are your best tools? Your best tools are short, plain Anglo-Saxon verbs. I mean active verbs, not passive verbs. If you could write an article using only active verbs, your article would automatically have clarity and warmth and vigor.”

“One of my favorite writers is Henry David Thoreau, who wrote one of the great American books, Walden, in 1854, about the two years he spent living—and thinking—in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s writing moves with simple strength because he uses one active verb after another to push his meaning along. At every point in his sentences you know what you need to know. Here’s a famous sentence from Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of nature, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

“Look at all those wonderful short, active verbs: went, wished, front, see, learn, die, discover. We understand exactly what Thoreau is saying. We also know a lot about him—about his curiosity and his vitality. How alive Thoreau is in that sentence! It’s an autobiography in 44 words—39 of which are words of one syllable. Think about that: only five words in that long, elegant sentence have more than one syllable. Short is always better than long.”

Excerpted from William Zinsser’s essay “Writing English as a Second Language” in The American Scholar on line, winter 2010.

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Honesty and chronology, part two

William Zinsser addresses the issue of fidelity to chronology in his On Writing Well, and I was surprised by his answer. Perusing the thirtieth anniversary edition of this sober classic on nonfiction, I expected Zinsser to be very conservative in all matters regarding literal truth, but after a long career of successful freelance magazine and book writing he’s practical about quotes and timelines. He approves of legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell’s composite quotes and blended timelines in his profiles. Mitchell apparently spent years, in some cases, with his subjects, and would meld their conversations and encounters with him.

“Although Mitchell altered the truth about elapsed time,” Zinsser writes, “he used a dramatist’s prerogative to Zinssercompress and focus his story, thereby giving the reader a manageable framework. If he had told the story in real time, strung across all the days and months . . . he would have achieved the numbing truth of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a man having an eight-hour sleep. By careful manipulation he raised the craft of nonfiction to art. But he never manipulated . . . [the subject’s] truth; there has been no ‘inferring,’ no ‘fabricating.’ He has played fair.”

Conflating quotes and creating one jaunt around the neighborhood from several such rambles is, literally speaking, fiction. But to convey truth, and artfully, and even for fairness and representational accuracy, Zinsser supports these techniques in nonfiction. He likes the richness of composite events, and in the case of quotes points out that all writers who take notes must “juggle and elide.” His own standard is to draw the line at creating anything from whole cloth.

In writing a memoir I’ve discovered that memory should be questioned—I caught it adding to one incident, probably because of the way I had felt during it—and that insight reinforced a strict constructionist impulse. If you only imagine that your father was wearing his red London Fog windbreaker that day on the boat, you say that. You go there. Maybe you end up writing about how he was color blind, everything a shade of gray—like your relationship. In this way, nonfiction’s art flows into and out of the ragged holes in narrative. In this way, perhaps, reality art is different from fictional art in its portrayal of the collision of self and world.

John Updike addresses basic disconnects between memory and fact in his memoir Self-Consciousness, giving readers the dual effect of straightforward nonfiction and impressionistic fiction. Early in the book he has a nice scene where, as a high school student working on an art project after school, he realizes that his teacher and his stern principal appear to share some secret romantic life. He adds, “To this quiet but indelible memory attaches a sensation that one of these two teachers came over and ruffled my hair, as if we had become a tiny family; but it may be simply that one of them stood close, to see how far along I was, because when I was finished we could all go to our separate homes.”

Another answer is to go for deeper scenic power by simply putting your father in that red jacket if that’s the truth you feel in the scene you’re creating. Or if that’s how he typically would have been dressed. Write the emotional truth based on historical truth. I’m wary of that decision but understand it. I haven’t yet faced the issue of whether I think, for me, it’s okay to move that day on the boat, the one where you caught the big fish, into a different year. So far, I’ve found that honoring chronology, when and where it can be teased from memory, leads to a powerful narrative and to surprising insights. Maybe that’s because the labor involved imposes rigor and leads to more rewriting.

If I felt that moving that day served truth and preserved narrative, should I do it? Does such a move put a writer on the road to the disgrace of A Million Little Pieces?  Zinsser does not seem to think so. At the other end of the scale there’s Amy Krouse Rosenthal, author of the celebrated memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, who administered a lie detector test to herself to ensure she hadn’t winged it anywhere.

But what does she consider winging it? How solid anyway is writing? Words aren’t life itself, but symbols. Readers simply want a story that works and which keeps its promise. That promise is the issue, but whatever answer a writer reaches as she tries to hit her sweet spot of Truth should be conscious and considered. As Zinsser’s rules imply—and he wrote the bestseller on practices in mainstream nonfiction—writing is also—inherently and inescapably—a performance.

As Robert Frost said:

“The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score.

How  to score while playing by the rules? What are the rules? More to come . . .

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Noted: William Zinsser

from “Visions and Revisions: Writing On Writing Well and keeping it up-to-date for 35 years,” in The American Scholar, Spring 2009

“It now occurs to me that I didn’t really find my style until I wrote On Writing Well, at the late age of 52. Until then my style more probably reflected zinsserwho I wanted to be perceived as—the urbane columnist and humorist and critic. Only when I started writing as a teacher and had no agenda except to be helpful did my style become integrated with my personality and my character. . . . The personal voice of the teacher, not the literary voice of the essayist, was the one I wanted narrating my book.”

“I learned to delete every word or phrase or sentence that told readers something they had already been enabled to know or were bright enough to deduce. I also tried to stop using phrases like of course and adverbs like surprisingly, predictably, understandably, and ironically, which place a value on a sentence before the reader has a chance to read it. Readers, I learned, are not as dumb as the writer thinks; they must be given room to play their role in the act of writing—to discover for themselves what’s surprising or predictable or understandable or ironic. They don’t want that pleasure usurped. . . . I learned to gather hundreds of facts and to let those facts speak for themselves, unvarnished. I learned to generate emotion by getting other people to tell me things they felt strongly about, not by waxing emotional myself. I learned not to wax.”

“To focus my students on the process, rather than on the finished product, I invented a writing course that doesn’t require any writing. I only ask the women and men in my class to talk about their hopes and intentions and about the possible ways of getting where they want to go. That forces them to confront all the prior decisions that memoir insists on: matters of voice, tone, tense, attitude, scope, narrative, and the privacy of their family and friends. How do they plan to reduce the vast jumble of memories clamoring to be sorted out and described? . . . I had discovered that the crippling problem for many writers is not how to write, but how to organize what they have written. Yet that skill is almost never mentioned or taught in writing classes.”

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