Inside William Zinsser's uncluttered office on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, nothing mattered but the work and pleasure of writing. Everything else — publishers, agents, the demise of print, the rise of free content, anxieties about success, failure and Amazon rankings — you left at the door. Zinsser, who died on Tuesday at the age of 92, was the author of On Writing Well and 18 other books about writing, travel, baseball and music. He was also a generous mentor to other writers. Through his books, he taught millions of people to write better by demonstrating simple, clear sentences and an authentic voice.
I had the pleasure of knowing Zinsser, as a relative. One of the things he always emphasized was how you don’t write to sell, you don’t write what your agent or your publisher wants you to write, you write for the process of finding a true story, and you write for the reader. “The central problem in most writing is the American obsession with the finished product,” he said. “Most Americans setting out on a memoir can picture the jacket of the book — the headline, title, byline and a charming tintype of a child with a pail by the seashore,” he said. “The only thing they haven’t thought about is how to write the damn thing.”
Zinsser encouraged me, and so many others, to write for the sake of writing. He offered us tools to write better, cutting away clutter to get to the core. He gave us permission to be ourselves on the page and to enjoy writing so our readers would enjoy it, too. His words are a tonic in the world of content and dollars per word. When I’m itching to write, to explore without a clear plan, his advice gives me courage. He’s gone now, but his words keep coming to me at my keyboard.
The unsettling part comes out elsewhere, when Malcolm and Struth are talking in a café and Struth recalls two of his teachers, and a reference they made to Marcel Proust. Malcolm asks Struth if he has actually read Proust, and Struth admits he has not. Struth seems to feel he has made a fool of himself, and Malcolm reassures him. But she writes about their discussion anyway, and acknowledges her “journalistic opportunism.” This is another leitmotif of Malcolm’s writing: To do his or her work a journalist must win the subject’s trust, perhaps by offering to tell the subject’s story, but in the end the story belongs only to the journalist, and the trust may turn out to have been misplaced. As Malcolm pronounces in one of her books, "every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
For a writer studying her words, this statement can prompt dejection or, perhaps, a desire to do better.
For more options, visit https://groups.google.com/d/optout.