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Writing about Your Life: A Journey Into the Past Hardcover – 1 Apr 2004
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"William Zinsser is a born teacher. This book, full of charm and ingenuity, cannot fail to delight and instruct the would-be writer of personal narrative." --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Now in paperback-an elegantly written, ingeniously constructed "teaching memoir" that entertains and instructs readers who want to write about their own lives, from the renowned author of the million-copy-selling On Writing Well --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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I am not centrally interested in writing memoir, but I am motivated, for personal pleasure, to write semi-autobiographical fiction and biography of my extended family. Zinsser's Writing About Your Life contributes valuably to that pursuit as much as it does to memoir-writing because many of the same strategies and insights remain true. Moreover, the strategies would hold for poetry in which I might choose to focus on those close to me: getting the facts right, keeping the images accurate and concrete, evoking the sound, smell, and sense of a place, or a person makes all the difference in the condensed purity of a poem. Most crucially, Zinsser advocates writing honestly and without judgment, or, if you choose to judge those about whom you write, then do so humbly and forgivingly. He laments the plethora of memoir-cum-attacks written in the 90s when people profited off of the pain of their families, with Jerry Springer-inspired TV action to promote their books. He argues that this kind of memoir is best left behind. Write honestly, faithfully, and forgivingly (of yourself and others) and you will have a beautifully written book.
I saw upon searching online for Writing About Your Life that Zinsser has a new book, Writing Places, which was published on June 1st in the UK. I will probably wait for the paperback to be released, before I read it. I will review it and tell you whether it lives up to his previous standards of writing.
In this book Zinsser provides the reader with advice on writing a memoir, using his own life and writing as the ‘story’ behind the writing self. In other words he’s doing while teaching. This is a most interesting and stimulating approach to the impossible problem of ‘how to.’ The answer is simply, write on what interests you and it will interest others. Well, yes, maybe and maybe not. I am no lover of baseball or computer games and found the chapters dealing with home runs and boyhood pursuits of fantasy games played enthusiastically by old men less than enthralling. The book also has an evangelical, accentuate-the-positive strain that becomes more and more pronounced as the book moves to its conclusion. The book is what I would term typically American, employing beneath its seductive charm a Christian ethic that ultimately tends to pall. But then I’ve just come from reading that very British writer, George Orwell who illustrates more obliquely his notion of human brotherhood.
Nevertheless I confess to becoming infected by the Zinsser spirit, enjoying his introductions to musicians, writers, dancers, professors and other sages, following his journey through life and literature. It’s really 99% about Zinsser’s life and opinions, and only 1% advice on writing about your life, the title of the book. Having said that I can’t envisage a more useful way of giving practical advice
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Reviewed by Shirley Brosius, author of Sisterhood of Faith: 365 Life-Changing Stories About Women Who Made a Difference and coauthor of Turning Guilt Trips into Joy Rides.