I don't know if anybody remembers this, but months ago I reviewed a book called On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Well, life must be even weirder than I thought, because a family friend who reads this blog is connected to Mr. Zinsser, and she sent him my review. Last Sunday I was in bed (at 10 o'clock, because I take and treasure every chance I get to sleep) when my mom came in with the phone. It played back a voice mail from WILLIAM ZINSSER, saying how much he liked my review. He even gave me his number so I could call him back.
Do any of you have remember that scene from The Fault in Our Stars when Hazel gets a letter from her favorite author, inviting her to visit? My joy at getting this call, and the invitation to return it, was equal if not greater. I had to pace and gibber for a while before I could go back to bed. I spent the rest of the week plotting my response, and decided that I could not waste this opportunity - I had to interview Mr. Zinsser for my blog.
Carly Sorenson: What are you up to these days? Any new projects?
William Zinsser: Well, I am 92 years old, so I don’t have too many things…I’ve rested my life as a journalist, going around and writing, so I’m not doing anything really new. But I now have a lot of people who come to see me or call me who are trying to write a memoir, or something about their life. And that’s a very hard thing for them to do, though it may seem very easy, because they don’t know where to begin, and where to go, and where to start. They think that the only thing you have to do to write a memoir is to just start by saying I was born in so and so, and then they don’t know where to go from there. But to write a memoir, or to write anything at all, you need to find a line, you need to find a narrative, and what I help these people to do is I ask these people, What is the story you want to tell? Out of all the stories that you could possibly tell, what is the one story that you and I together can write, that will make sense, that you can tell in a chronological way, I order, that sums up where you want to go. So that’s what I try to do, is figure out what they want to say about their life. And that means to a great extent figuring out what they don’t need to say because my job is mainly shaping, it’s cutting, it’s organizing for these people so that finally they arrive at some sense of arrangement of what they want to say, so that they know ahead of time what they want to say. Most people who bring these stories to me of any kind, whether it’s a memoir or not, have no idea of what they want to say. But writing is linear, it is composed in an orderly, narrative line, because anybody wants to be told a story, they want it to make sense. They don’t want to keep asking themselves, What is this person trying to say?
You wrote a wonderful review of my book On Writing Well, and made the point that there are no extra words in anything I write. Most people believe that writing is a question of putting in anything that comes into their head, and then they include thousands of adjectives that don’t need to be there, thousands of adverbs that don’t need to be there. Good writing should really have no adjectives, no adverbs, get it all down to the simplest thing you want to say. And that’s what I try to do, is to help these people, to put them out of their misery. And as they tell me their stories, their stories are really wonderful. Everybody has some kind of wonderful story to tell, and they may not think so, and that’s another one of the problems I’ve faced. Most people are scared of writing, I don’t know why. They think their story is not worth knowing, they think nobody would care about my story. That’s not true. So much of the work I do is really basically psychiatry – assuring people that your story is worth telling. I assure you, and I want you to assure your listeners, that anybody will be interested in your story, and you must convince yourself of that fact. I give you permission to believe that your story is something that somebody will believe, if you believe it, and if you tell it very simply, and very honestly, without a lot of extra fancy words. If people like my writing, which has been out for forty years now in On Writing Well, it’s not because they think they are hearing from a teacher. I do not come across in my writing as someone saying Do this, Do not do that; I come across as a person. I do not want to be known as a writer. I want to be known to my students as a person, and I want that person to come across as someone who is interested in the person who reads my book. I am interested in you. If you’re reading my book, I want you to know from my writing that I am just another person. I’m not a writer, I am a person, and I am trying to talk to you in my person-voice, not a writer’s voice. So remember that, that writing is a person-to-person transaction. Do not be scared of writing. Have the confidence to believe that your writing is worthwhile. Keep telling yourself that, that you and your writing are worthwhile. Do not be scared. Talk to everyone, in your writing, as if you were someone talking as simply as possible.
CS: Wow, ok. Do you have any success stories from the people you help?
WZ: Yes, I have a lot. Since I’ve been doing this at home, instead of out in an office, I have several people whose stories are now books, people are out there buying them in bookstores. They are published, and that’s because I have made it possible by working with them to get a story out of them, after working with them one time or several times. If it’s a long book or a long story, they’ll come to me and get some of it done, and then they’ll come back to me and we’ll figure out, Where should we go from here? And we go from there, and then I cut back what is not useful. I don’t want to take up your time by telling you all these stories, but I have many success stories, and that’s very very gratifying to me. Nothing could be more pleasing to me than to help someone get their story down. So it’s good work. I really don’t identify more as a writer than a teacher, I’m basically a teacher. I like to help people say what they want to say.
CS: Do you have any titles you can think of?
WZ: I don’t know the titles because I don’t have them here, but they cover all kinds of varieties of experiences. Many of the things that people bring to me, they know they have some interest in making it happen, but they haven’t got any way of getting it done. So the people I help to write are very different, they come from different parts of the country, different parts of the world. I do know what I’m going to get next. Someone is coming to me later today who said he had this very complicated story – he’d been trying to work on it for 30 years and he’d never been able to do it – it was some early jail time experiences, something like that. But I know it will be interesting to me, and that’s an important thing. I always look forward to their coming, because I think Hey, this is going to be interesting, and I wanna learn.
All writing, Carly, is a journey. You are taking the listener or the reader from one place to another. It has to have a beginning; it has to have an end. So every time someone comes to me, the first thing I’m wondering is, What kind of trip is this person gonna take me on? And I have no way of knowing in advance, but I do know that by the time that person leaves, once, or twice, or three or four times, that I will have found some way, with them, to tell that story in a way that is orderly, and has no extra stuff in it of any kind, no extra words. The main thing is to keep cutting , keep cutting. That is a rule for all of you, whatever you write – that every component in a piece of writing should be doing useful work, work that you can justify. So you don’t have to say that the sky is blue. We all know the sky is blue. Just talk about the sky. Cut out all those things that describe things that you already know, that the house was on the street – or whatever. If I were to come and say “Can you justify that word?”, you’d take a look at it, and you would undoubtedly, almost for sure, say, “You know, I don’t really need it, and the piece is stronger and better without it.” Short is better than long, short sentences are better than long sentences, short stories are better than long stories. Think small. You don’t have to think big. Tell your stories simply, with strong imagery.
CS: Ok, thank you, that’s good advice. [Zinsser was about to leave.] Wait, can I ask you a few more questions?
CS: Hmm, let me see. I have a list. What do you do when you have writer’s block? Do you have any strategies?
WZ: [Silence.] I have no strategies for writer’s block. Writing is a job, it’s work, it’s like brick-laying or anything else. And if you’re gonna stop and think, Oh, this is so mysterious, I can’t do it, you have to say to yourself, This is a job that I have chosen to do. There are many times when, in my writing over the years, especially when writing long magazine articles that were especially complicated, I thought to myself, If I live to be a thousand (which I almost have), I’m never going to get this thing settled. But I know that writing is a craft. It’s not an art, it’s a craft. Sometimes it can be raised to an art, you know, it can be raised to an art by great, great writers, but for most people it is a craft. It has its own tools, which are in the English language, which is a wonderful language. It can be made to say anything at all no matter how complex it is. Learn the tools of the language – what is a verb, what is a noun. Uh, don’t learn what is an adjective because I don’t want you to use them. The active verb is the most important thing you’ve got. Make a house, using the language. The language has been given to me like a set of tools. If I were going to work as a carpenter, those tools, if I use them right, can be made to do what I need to do. It will be hard because writing is very hard. If you think it’s easy, you’re never going to write anything. It is very hard work. I know it to be. It’s not an easy thing to take on – to take what’s in your head, and get it onto the paper in an orderly form. But, it can be done. We know it can be done because we have this wonderful, wonderful language. So you just have to not feel sorry for yourself. That’s a big thing to overcoming writer’s block. Think: I am practicing a craft, as if I were a carpenter, as if I were a plumber. You may think that it is crazy for me to compare what I do, which is writing, to plumbing, which is never celebrated as a glorious craft. But to me it is a miracle that somebody can come into my house and make water come out of a faucet on the 10th floor. That is no less remarkable, to me, than someone writing a clear sentence, and it’s the same kind of thing. The plumber knows what tools he has to use, and the writer has to go about it in the same way. So don’t feel sorry for yourself; self-pity is not going to overcome any writer’s block at all. Think of it like this: I am practicing an old and honorable craft, craft, which has its own tools, which I work. Use those tools, get to know those tools and what they will do, and practice them to figure out what tools can I use to get where I want to go. Stick with it until you get it done. You will overcome your own writer’s block. You gotta do all that work yourself. I can’t do anything for you. Sorry about that.
CS: That’s ok! So I recently reread your chapter on Usage, which I always think is really funny. Can you remember a specific time when you got really worked up about an instance of language misuse?
WZ: Well, I mean, I do it all the time. I remember someone who was a teacher, of writing, who was doing some writing of her own. She brought it to me, and at the end of it I said to her, “I am very sorry, but I don’t understand what this piece is about.” And that was not good news to her. And I said, “I don’t know because there are so many words in there, trying to think I am writing. She had put in so many descriptive words about the weather and the trees and the birds, and this and that, that she had totally lost sight of the journey she was taking the reader on. Most of the really bad writing is not writing that necessarily has errors in it, but the writing has so much stuff piled into it. People are not as careful about writing as they once were. They get so much information from the ear, or from the wrist, or from some other aperture, that you can’t see what you’re doing. I can think of millions that I see every day, but I can’t tell them all to you now.
CS: That’s fine. How did you become a writer? Did you try any other career paths or have part time jobs? How did you get here?
WZ: No, when I was a kid, I always knew that I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be a newspaperman. I didn’t want to be any exalted essay-writer. And so I remember, as a boy, I got my parents to subscribe to a wonderful newspaper called the New York Herald. I was too small to hold it, to hold it up. I would spread it out on the floor and I would read that paper every day. I tried to figure out how the people who were telling the stories, telling the stories, how they were doing it, and I found that they were doing it clearly and simply. But I also found out, Carly, that they seemed to be enjoying what they were doing. And I’ve always tried to, if I’m not enjoying what I’m doing, I always try to convey the idea that I am enjoying it. And I think that if readers are going to give you their time, to read what you’ve written, then they are entitled to know that you are having a good time telling them that story, even if you’re not, even if you’re working very hard. I’ll tell you what: I always, at the paper that I worked for, it always had a lot of humor in it. Sports writers, or the theater critic, they all seemed to be thinking, Hey, isn’t this the best thing we could be doing in the world. And it was! And so, in all writing, I try to give the impression that I’m having a terrific time. If something amuses me, then I think it will amuse two other people, though not many other people might think that it would. Many people, I think, many people are too serious. People that read anything I write will get a few laughs through the course of reading it, and that’s because I think, Ah, this is what I want to do with my life – have a good time. And if you’re not having a good time, convey that idea so the reader believes that you are, even if you’re not.
CS: I’m gonna ask one more question. Do you have any advice for high school students who are interested in writing?
WZ: My advice for high school students, for writing, would be: write simply, write clean, clearly, get rid of all extra words. Read other people who are doing the kind of writing that you want to do, the way I read the newspaper. All my life and still to this day, I read magazine writers, newspaper writers, people who do that kind of writing. The key is to learn by imitation, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you find a writer that makes you say, I would like to write like that writer, if I live to be old enough, then try to figure out how that writer is doing what they do. Write something in the style of that writer, try to imitate that writer. You’re not gonna be writing in that writer’s style for the rest of your life, but figure out who you want to sound like. What kind of personality do you want to come across? What do you want to accomplish with your writing? It’s not magic. Teachers, writing teachers, will spend their lives in class, giving you a whole bunch of rules, of verbs and participles and whatever, but writing is not finally that. Writing is, finally, saying what you want to say, as an individual, unique person like nobody else, and how to say it in a way that most clearly expresses who you are as a person. Say it as cleanly and as natural as possible. And do not be scared of writing. It is just another craft. Believe in yourself, believe in your own story, write it with confidence. I give you permission, whoever you are, you have my permission to write about your life with warmth, and simplicity, and with confidence, without fear. My blessings to you all and thank you for calling me, Carly. Thank you very much for your interest in my work; it means a great deal to me. And good luck to you, and all your fellow students and listeners. Thank you for calling me.
CS: Thank you!
Unlike poor Hazel of The Fault in Our Stars, I was not disappointed after speaking with my writing idol for the first time. He was kind, interesting, and eloquent. I did learn something new about him, though - his favorite word, at least in conversation, seems to be 'wonderful.' Count the number of times he says it in the interview!
If you read this, Mr. Zinsser, I am so grateful that you took the time to call me. I will always treasure this interview, and I will remember your plea for simplicity as long as I am a writer.