Tribute to William Zinsser

I've longed for some time to have a writing venue where I could simply be myself, not so much in secret, as in a diary, but more publicly. This urge to be better known and understood and to thereby make a difference, seems natural even for an introvert like me. This is the main reason I write at all.

I long to become not only more visible than I ever was in the crowd of siblings where I grew up but also in the world at large. This writing medium is a window into my thinking and into who I am and how I relate to a world that's going mad. Written words are a framework in which I've longed to view and describe the world and even to expostulate for the good of my soul. I'm so grateful to have the help of so many writers who have gone before me, pursuing the same objective, using the same medium and who, by their example and insights, are providing me so much help.

The writer William Zinsser has been more than a hero to me, for going on 20 years now, a whole generation, although I never met him. Two decades seem an appropriate time-slice given my natural father might have lived to Zinsser's age, had Nature not reclaimed my Dad when he was thirty-nine and I was sixteen. I can only imagine what our relationship could have been, had he lived. I've sought to meet a stand-in since my Dad's death, a surrogate I could look up to, an imaginary father, perhaps. Few men have measured up to my ideal but Zinsser tops my shortlist of imaginary "found parents." It would have been an honor to know him.

Today I visited the website dedicated to William Zinsser's remembrance. It became a sacred pilgrimage if ever I've made one. His most popular book (On Writing Well) has gotten me through the past fifteen years of self-development and independent study, with innumerable detours, that led to my writer's emancipation: the decision to dedicate myself, at long last, to the work I've wanted to do since I was far too callow to do it and to assume the writer's identity that I have longed to fill for a lifetime, and am now continually busy fulfilling. This is what I was actually born to do.

At the start of my transformation from engineer to writer, Zinsser's beloved On Writing Well was a godsend to a godless man. Now, as I realize that I have evolved into what I have longed to become, I'm groping toward what comes next, with unending self-expostulation and revision of mind and soul as I develop my craft and psyche as far as they can go during the years I have left.

I discovered glittering gems once more in his work this morning. Several new rubies jumped into my pocket as I paid a visit to his online memorial, reading through excerpts from his books. Some standouts seem especially relatable. So I pass their deep resonance onward. Some of his words seem to define who I am in some ways, both a past me and the new man I am becoming as I live out my final life stage. My main regret is that I didn't start writing seriously much sooner.

From William Zinsser’s Commencement Speech at Wesleyan University, 1988

"The sportswriter Red Smith was one of my heroes. Not long before his own death he gave the eulogy at the funeral of another writer, and he said, “dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.” Living is the trick. That’s what we’re all given one chance to do well...

"When I was teaching at Yale, the poet Allen Ginsberg came to talk to my students, and one of them asked him: 'Was there a point at which you consciously decided to become a poet?' And Ginsberg said: ‘It wasn’t quite a choice; it was a realization. I was 28 and I had a job as a market researcher. One day I told my psychiatrist that what I really wanted to do was to quit my job and just write poetry. And the psychiatrist said, 'Why not?' And I said, 'Well, what would the American Psychoanalytic Association say?' And he said, 'There’s no party line.' So I did." We’ll never know how big a loss that was for the field of market research. But it was a big moment for American poetry.

"There’s no party line.

"Good advice.

"You can be your own party line. If living is the trick, what’s crucial for you is to do something that makes the best use of your own gifts and your own individuality. There’s only one you. Don’t ever let anyone persuade you that you’re somebody else...

"In those eleven years [of being a freelance writer] I never wrote anything that I didn’t want to write. I’d like you to remember that. You don’t have to do unfulfilling work, or work that diminishes you. You don’t have to work for people you don’t respect. You’re bright enough to figure out how to do work that you do want to do, and how to work for people you do want to work for."

All these lessons I recognize, having lived through them each as the plot of my life unfolded: finding out how to work to the tune of my own best gifts; insisting on being who I am and not what others wanted me to be; not doing work I didn't want or work that would diminish me; not working for, or with, people I don't respect. Like Ginsberg, for me "It [writing] wasn’t quite a choice; it was a realization." Given before I fully realized what a profound change I had unconsciously made, I had written my third non-fiction book and started another one and also a memoir, as well as several short stories.


From “Writing About Your Life”

"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 ask us to do destructive work for some purpose 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—or, if I start negatively, deploring some situation or trend that strikes me as injurious, my goal is to arrive at a constructive point. I choose to write about people whose values I respect and who do life-affirming work; 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 musicians and other artists who represent the best of their art... 

"My mother came from a long line of devout Maine and Connecticut Yankees, and she thought it was a Christian obligation to be cheerful. It is because of her that I am cursed with optimism. The belief that I can somehow will things to go right more often than they go wrong—or to be an agent of God’s intention for them to go right—has brought many adjectives down on my head, none of them flattering: naive, credulous, simple-minded. All true. I plead guilty to positive thinking."

Though I relate things that are sad or even dreadful when that is the truth of the writing, on the other hand, I never post a basically negative review. Instead, when something is terminally dreadful, I simply won't write about it. Being positive in action is a main way for anyone to make a difference, to induce more sanity, peace, and truth into life. Affirming beauty affirms life itself.

Zinsser's last paragraph above echoes words I've spoken more than once, though without religious underpinnings. I refuse to posit deities because helping things go right more than they go wrong simply returns as a reward again and again. I, too, "plead guilty to positive thinking" because it re-creates what inspires it. I don't need a god to tell me this. It's patently obvious in the stream of existence when closely examined.


From “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 a complex 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."

All I was looking for this morning was the title of Zinsser's book on writing craft (Writing to Learn) because, having been aging as wine ages in cool darkness while cradled in hardwood, it's now time to exit the oaken cask of the past two decades, to pour myself into what-is-now, as well as possible but not yet realized. On Writing Well is one of the most influential books I've read and keep periodically re-reading. I'm not alone in revering it; whole generations do. In it, Zinsser teaches a secret beyond all possible tips:

"The life-changing message of On Writing Well is: simplify your language and thereby find your humanity."

I'd be grateful to gain even half that much wisdom by reading my next Zinsser book. I plunge into the unknown, striving to become all I can imagine while reflecting upon his insights. In his writings I've found a great soul, kind heart and a kindred spirit, a father- surrogate to respect and emulate and the best writing coach I could want.


May I forever write to learn and keep learning to the end.

May I have the character of a good writer.

May my work be solid.


-- Joseph Riden