Wednesday, May 20, 2015

William Zinsser (1922-2015)


On Writing Well author is remembered by a disciple

William Zinsser, the author of On Writing
and 18 other books, in 1968

"In On Writing Well, this is what Bill had to say about endings: 'When you're ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.' "
-- the conclusion of Mark Singer's
"Tuesdays with Zinsser," on

by Ken

Among the 19 books left behind by William Zinsser, you'd think I would at least have read On Writing Well, because wherever it was that I encountered him writing about writing, I was impressed, and I don't impress easily when it comes to writing about writing. But somehow I never got around to the actual book. (I guess I'm pretty much a Strunk-and-White guy.)

Zinsser died a week ago today, at 92. There's a nice NYT obituary by Damon Winter. What belatedly got my attention is a remembrance on the New Yorker website by a writer I admire enormously, Mark Singer (you may remember his dazzling book Funny Money on the spectacular 1982 failure of the energy-inflated Penn Square Bank, located in a shopping mall in Oklahoma), who is in fact quoted at length in the NYT obit as a Zinsser student.

Mark describes his mentor and friend Bill as "a New York City newspaperman turned freelance magazine writer who had reinvented himself as a teacher of writing" (the NYT obit notes that he considered himself “a writer who does some teaching"), and who, without any previous connection to the institution and without any normal academic credentials, wound up teaching at Yale, where the likes of Robert Penn Warren and John Hersey "famously taught oversubscribed fiction-writing seminars."

What Zinsser taught was a "Nonfiction Workshop," which was "independent of the English department or any other department," at the Yale residential college Calhoun College, at the invitation of Calhoun's master, the critic R.W.B. Lewis. (In addition, as the result of some concurrent marital shenanigans in the upper editorial reaches of the Yale Alumni Magazine, Zinsser wound up becoming editor of that.) In the lofty world of Yale, says Mark, "nonfiction" had "an unseemly utilitarian ring." ("Trade school?" he adds parenthetically. "Here, call the number on this matchbook.") Soon enough, however, "word got around about this cheerful fellow Zinsser, not another eyebrow-arching pipe smoker in an elbow-patched tweed jacket but a real professional craftsman who had sneaked in the side entrance of the academy from the real world." Mark speaks of having "wangled" his place in the workshop in the fall of 1971.

The popularity of Zinsser's nonfiction class presumably didn't come because the participants had a jolly, relaxed time.
We met for two hours every Thursday afternoon in a comfortably furnished lounge in Calhoun College. In that room, we mostly listened, as Bill read, along with examples from his own work, passages from writers I’d read but hadn’t properly considered (Thoreau, Orwell, Twain, E. B. White, Red Smith), or knew of but hadn’t much read (Mencken, Perelman, Wills, Didion, Talese). Some I already revered for their supreme coolness (Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe). Others, previously unknown to me (Alan Moorehead, Michael Arlen, Joseph Mitchell), proved to be more enduring influences.

The weekly writing assignments—thousand-word limit, a safeguard for Bill’s sanity—required us to try our hands at a wide range of forms: humor, interviewing, travel, science, sports, criticism, editorials. This regimen inevitably yielded the occasional face-first failure, soon to be transmuted by pedagogical alchemy into an edifying failure. At the end of class, Bill would return our papers from the previous week, each illuminated with his editing suggestions and provocative marginalia. I still wince at his dead-on appraisal of my travel piece: “You’ll notice that I stopped marking this halfway through. What you’ve written is interesting only to you.”
"Our first imperative was to eliminate 'clutter,' " says Mark, "which Bill regarded as 'the disease of American writing . . . unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon.' "
After forty years at The New Yorker, I would never suggest that his standards exceeded those of scores of incisive and vigilant editors who have saved me from mortification. I do know that it’s taken me more than an hour to solve this paragraph. Throughout, I’ve been conscious of his voice while refining my own—instinctively applying Zinsserian admonitions, pruning the verbiage, savoring the luxury (to paraphrase Twain) of finding the right word rather than settling for the almost right.

In 1999, twenty years after Bill left Yale and moved back to Manhattan, I sent a group letter to his former students, encouraging them to write about their experiences in “Nonfiction Workshop,” for inclusion in an archive at New York University’s Fales Library, where he had donated his papers. There seemed to be two schools of thought about what color ink Bill used when he cut us down to size. One woman wrote, “William Zinsser’s writing seminar was a humbling experience for me. I remember the ferocity and sting of his red pen.” Another maintained that he once told her class, “I never use red pen to correct. It always looks like the page is bleeding.” Blood turned out to be a pervasive motif: “No one has ever attacked my work with a blue pencil like Bill Zinsser. I watched essays swagger into class like General Custer, only to find themselves cut to shreds and shot full of holes, bleeding on the prairie, wondering where their first three paragraphs had gone. For sloppy, spongy, timid writing, Bill Zinsser’s class was the Battle of Bull Run.” This came from someone who took the course the same term I did, in the fall of 1971. I knew him as Jeff Stuart Goldfarb. Evidently, he took so seriously Bill’s exhortations to eliminate clutter that he had his last name legally blue-penciled and is now simply Jeff Stuart. If he would only work harder, he could be Jeff.
Zinsser left Yale for the Book-of-the-Month Club, where he spent eight years, serving as executive editor. He continued his writing and his teaching until, Mark says,
in late middle age he began having trouble with his eyes. The first insult was a detached retina, followed twenty or so years later by glaucoma, which progressively made the daily commute from his apartment, in the East Sixties, to his office in the East Fifties, an uncertain undertaking.
Even so, he found yet another world to conquer.
In 2010, he proposed writing a weekly essay for the Web site of The American Scholar. Like most eighty-seven-year-olds, Bill did not aspire to digital mastery: he never had an e-mail address; until he started writing a blog, he’d never read one. This deterred neither him nor The American Scholar’s editor, Robert Wilson. (“How could we not say yes?”) The blog—Zinsser on Friday, seven hundred words a week—ran for nineteen months, until his dwindling eyesight forced him to give it up. He closed his office at the end of 2011. His final book, “The Writer Who Stayed” (Paul Dry Books), a collection of selected columns, was published the following year. Meanwhile, The American Scholar had nominated Zinsser on Friday for a 2012 National Magazine Award for digital commentary. Of course, he won.

The 82nd and last "Zinsser on Friday" blog entry, "Envoi: What I've learned writing this blog," in which "a revered journalist, teacher, and essayist says goodbye," appeared Dec. 16, 2011. (Like most of the entries I tried to call up on the American Scholar Web page "The Complete Zinsser on Friday, this one returned a message that begins: "This article is not yet available online," followed by instructions for buying "a single copy of the print edition in which it appears," instructions I think are even less likely to work these several years later since, as far as I know, these blogposts never appeared in print issues.)

Mark writes that Zinsser, "confronted with what he called 'the next chapter in my life,' " sent out a letter (part of which is quoted in the NYT obit)
to his extraordinarily wide circle of friends and acquaintances, announcing his availability for editorial guidance, music lessons, sing-alongs. (He was a lifelong jazz pianist, and an amateur composer and lyricist.)" (Part of this appeal is quoted in the NYT obit.)
Whatever anyone had in mind, he wanted to help—“I’m eager to hear from you. No project too weird.”
What occurred to Mark was "a self-indulgent proposal" that he presented in a phone call.
I didn’t have a project in mind, but what if we were to spend a couple of hours together every week? We settled on Tuesday mornings, a standing appointment etched in my calendar for more than three years. Other friends made similar arrangements. Some mornings, as I entered the apartment, Bill would be seated at his Steinway baby grand, wearing a ball cap and dark glasses, immersed in his daily exercises. I would tiptoe in, take a seat, and allow his softly articulated, freely associated chords to wash over me. The eavesdropping, the delight, felt serenely illicit.

Most days I read to him—articles, books, some chosen by him, others by me—but we spent at least as much time just talking. About his life, about mine, sometimes sounding the depths, but usually bobbing gently and genially in the foam. The last book we finished was St. Clair McKelway’s “The Edinburgh Caper.” Two weeks ago, I began reading to him Mary Norris’s “Between You and Me.” Bill was loving it, and laughing in all the spots she intended.
Several days later Mark "heard from mutual friends that [Bill] seemed to have a mild case of pneumonia." Then, last week,
Last week, I called an hour and a half before my usual arrival time, just to make sure he was up to a visit. His son, John, answered and told me that Bill had died during the night. At ninety-two, at home, in his own bed, in his sleep—lucky to the last.


The 30th Anniversary Edition of Zinsser's best-known and best-selling (1.5 million copies!) book appeared in 2006. Damon Winter tells us in the NYT obit that writing the book was suggested by Zinsser's wife, Caroline (this year they would have celebrated their 60th anniversary), and that since its 1976 debut the book --
has gone through repeated editions, at least four of which were substantially revised to include subjects like new technologies (the word processor) and new demographic trends (more writers from other cultural traditions).

It became a book that editors and teachers encouraged writers to reread annually in the manner of another classic on the craft of writing, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White.

Mr. Zinsser went beyond that earlier book’s admonitions on writerly dos and don’ts; he used his professional experience to immerse readers in the tribulations of authorship, even subconscious ones.

“Ultimately, the product any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is,” Mr. Zinsser wrote in On Writing Well. He added: “I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me — some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field.”

Zinsser in 2013



Post a Comment

<< Home