With Writing About Your Life - a pleasurable and instructional book - Zinsser brandishes his skill with words, while exposing the practice required to hone such skill. He focuses on writing memoir. He maps the challenges you face when writing a memoir and he provides tactics to avoid common problems, to improve your focus, and to clarify your intentions. He makes a case study of several texts along the way, drawing on his own writing and his experiences interviewing other writers such as Frank McCourt, Annie Dillard, Toni Morrison, and many others. The book is well-rounded, incorporating Zinsser's peculiar take on a life lived well, on God, on writing as career and passion, and on appreciation of commonplace beauty. This is the second book by Zinsser that I've read and I plan to read his other books. In particular, he refers to a book he edited, Inventing the Truth: Art and Craft of Memoir, in which several writers contribute their opinions and advice on writing memoir (including those authors listed above), which I now intend to read.
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