William Zinsser: Your Memoir Should Not Include Everything That Happened to You

William Zinsser
Book Review: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, 30th Anniversary Edition
William Zinsser
Harper Paperbacks, 2006
Softcover, 321 pages, with sources and index

This book is from my reading list at amazon.com.

The anniversary edition is Zinsser’s seventh updating of his classic. He published the first edition in 1976 as an alternative to the long-reigning king of how-to writing manuals, The Elements of Style, by E. B. White and William Strunk, Jr. Zinsser had been teaching his nonfiction writing course at Yale University for five years and wanted to put the course into a book. Where Strunk and White focused on writing rules, Zinsser’s course and book focused on how to write about people and places.

“If people connect with my book it’s because they don’t think they’re hearing from an English professor. They’re hearing from a working writer.”

Notice the contractions, which he uses extensively. Although dismissed by some writers and critics as lazy and sloppy, contractions give a friendly, approachable feel to his work.

Perhaps in defense of contractions, although he doesn’t state it as a defense, is what he says is at the heart of good nonfiction writing: the personal transaction between writer and reader, “an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next” without gimmicks. The transaction is cemented when the writer honestly communicates “humanity and warmth . . . clarity and strength.”

Chapters on Memoirs in This Update
His updates have included changes in social and literary trends, demographic patterns, new technologies, new words and usages, and lessons learned in wrestling with the craft of writing.

This edition covers principles, methods, forms, and attitudes as approaches to writing about travel, memoir, science and technology, business writing, and the arts. New in this edition is a chapter on writing your own memoir and a chapter on writing family history and memoir.

He believes we earn the right to write our own memoir because we were born. No other credentials or permissions are required. There are other reasons for writing memoir besides being published.

Regarding his students: “Year after year their stories take me deeply into their lives and into their yearning to leave a record of what they have done and thought and felt.”

When writing memoir, think narrow, he says. It’s not an autobiography taken from a daily diary, although that can be useful. It is snippets of sight, sound, smell, and touch that caused you to learn and change and make decisions; to become who you are.

Memoirs His Father Wrote
“The crucial ingredient in memoir is, of course, people . . . the men and women and children who notably crossed your life.”

Especially poignant is his story of the two memoirs his father wrote. One was a history of his father’s side of the family going back to nineteenth-century Germany. The other was a history of his family’s New York City shellac business founded by his father’s grandfather in 1849. “He wrote with a pencil on a yellow legal pad, never pausing—then or ever again—to rewrite.” His father had the histories typed, mimeographed and bound in plastic covers. He gave a personally inscribed copy to each of his four children and fifteen grandchildren.

“Over the years I’ve often found myself dipping into them to remind myself of some long-lost relative, or to check some long-lost fact of New York geography, and with every reading I admire the writing more.”

William Zinsser is a writer and editor who teaches at the New School in New York and at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of seventeen books including Writing about Your Life, his memoir that does not include everything that happened to him.

Photo courtesy theamericanscholar.org.

Which books helped you the most in writing your memoirs? Which were not helpful? Let us know by clicking on the word comments below.

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