Writing About Your Life
A Journey into the Past
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
It isn’t the writing advice that strikes me most about William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. No doubt the advice is sound and helpful’the most helpful that I’ve found. But, concerning the mechanics of good writing, Zinsser doesn’t tell the student of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style much that’s new. Instead, it’s his presentation that sets the book apart. Zinsser teaches writing through narrative full of what he calls “warmth and humanity.” That’s what brings me back to On Writing Well again and again, and that’s why I had to read Writing about Your Life.
Just as On Writing Well grew out of a course that Zinsser taught at Yale, so Writing about Your Life is the “distillation” of a course that he teaches at New School in New York. The course, called “People and Places,” teaches men and women how to write about their lives, something that Zinsser believes is important:
Writers are the custodians of memory, and memories have a way of dying with their owner. One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.”
According to the author, this book has two premises. The first is to “beware of ‘about’.” Instead of starting with an outline or picture of the finished project, writers should focus on one story at a time, being open to where their memory leads them. The end result may be much different than the initial idea. The second premise is to “think small.” As Zinsser says, “Be content to tell your small portion of a larger story. Too short is always better than too long.” Writers should avoid listing every detail of their life. “An interesting life doesn’t make an interesting memoir. Only small pieces of life make an interesting memoir.”
This book is not for those who are impatient with example. Zinsser doesn’t give an outline, five steps, or a list of do’s and don’ts. Instead, he tells stories from his own life, stopping along the way to discuss his writing, the choices he made, and the principles that guided those choices. Readers of On Writing Well will recognize some of the stories, which are expanded in this book. But there are many new ones, too. This method of teaching is an example in itself, as Zinsser asserts early on that “People love to be told stories.” It works for me.
Zinsser says that a good memoir should teach the reader something about life. “Make your writing useful,” he says. Referring to one of his music teachers, he writes: “Much of what Dwike Mitchell taught me about playing the piano has nothing to do with music. It has to do with conduct and character.” The same can be said about this book, which I loved reading. Zinsser teaches us about conduct and character, without neglecting to teach what we want to know about writing. He is certainly one who knows how to write a story that is both enjoyable and useful.