Friday, January 23, 2009

Writing About Your Life (A Book Review)

I’m recovering. I’m not yet up to running or cross-country skiing or heading to the gym, but I am back to work and feeling pretty good and hopefully by Monday, I’ll be back at the gym. Thanks for your concern. As I said, it was minor surgery, but as I’ve never faced a scalpel in my life, I was apprehensive. A few weeks ago I reviewed Zinsser’s Spring Training. I enjoyed that book so much that I also read another of his books and I recommend it to you.

William Zinsser, Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past (New York: Marlowe & Company, 2004), 228 pages

Years ago, I read Zinsser’s classic work, On Writing Well, which came out of Zinsser’s experience of teaching Creative Writing at Yale in the 1970s. He was in his fifties when he wrote, On Writing Well, having already done stints as a journalist and a free-lance author. Now, late in his life, Zinsser has published a new book on memoirs. This book is based on lectures given during his “post-retirement years” as a professor at the New School in New York City. Although the title sounds like a text book, and the work could be used as one, this book is a pleasure to read. In each chapter, Zinsser draws from stories of life and he presents them in a way to engage the reader to think about their own stories and how they might tell them. Zinsser life has been variety and he constantly reminds his readers that “change is a tonic” that often leads to new discoveries. (126 & Chapter 13)

Borrowing Dickens’ cliché, Zinsser describes the 1990s were the best of times and worst of time from memoirs. Great works such as McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Karr’s The Liar’s Club were published along with a host of tell-all books that “wallow in self-pity and self-revelation.” (157) He reminds his readers that if you expose your own humanity and the humanity of those whose path you’ve crossed, you will connect with your readers, but that readers won’t connect with whining. (173) Writing should be useful, he insists (156). Readers need to have our “terrifying age” explained honestly. (155) Zinsser, who sees his writing as a ministry, strives to affirm, to build up and to celebrate. (176)

Although our stories often contain universal themes, Zinsser suggests that we don’t set out to write about such themes, but instead tell our stories and let the theme(s) flow from our experiences. He also suggests that we not set out to write about events we see as important and interesting for others. “Write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you remember them it’s because they contain a larger truth that your readers will recognize in their own lives.” (7) Later, Zinsser suggests that if we have the choice between two projects, one we feel we ought to write and the other we see as fun, to take the fun one for it will show in our final product. (48) “Write about things that are important to you, not what you think your readers will want to read or your editors will want to publish or agents will want to sell.” (201) When we write from our passions, we are more convincing and more able to connect to our readers. The challenge is to tell our story in a way that connects with our readers.

Zinsser reminds us that “an interesting life doesn’t make an interesting memoir. Only small pieces of a life make an interesting memoir…” Instead of writing a memoir, he describes himself as cannibalizing his life for memorable moments. (29) In writing about places and institutions, we have to remember they “have no life on their own.” The writer brings them to life through the stories of people who inhabit or experience such places or institutions. (22) Zinsser also warms about writing on big events which can overwhelm us. Instead, write about something manageable. As an example, he quotes extensively from an article he’d been asked to write for an anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. Instead of focusing on the invasion itself, he tells his own experiences as a member of a reserve unit in Algiers, who watched the invasion of Europe on a large map in the center of his camp, and how as the days went by, painters would color in the newly liberated territories on the continent. (30-32) As for travel writing, he describes it as “detective work,” where the author collects the small details and then crafts a story. (75)

Writing About Your Life is so much more than a writing manual. It’s Zinsser desire to give his readers permission to be who they are. (216) This has been the ministry of his writing and it shows throughout this book. In the opening pages, Zinsser recalls his father’s work (he owned company that made shellac). “Quality was my father’s passion. I never felt that he thought of his business as a means of making money, but as an art, to be practiced with only the best materials.” (2) The quest for quality has remained with Zinsser and is evident in his writing. Even if you don’t inspire to be a published writer, I recommend this book.


  1. This seems like what I need. I am seriously thinking of publishing..

  2. Enjoyed your review very much. Zinser has a way of capturing the essence and you captured his :)

    Very few people write writing books that are actually helpful. Zinser does

  3. As for travel writing, he describes it as “detective work,” where the author collects the small details and then crafts a story.

    I'll have to try and remember that the next time I write about traveling. Of course, I'll have to travel to get to that point, but you know: semantics ;)

  4. I don't know if I dare try another of your recommended books although your score of good books to bad ones is a pretty impressive 2-1. That Craig Childs book really left a mark. :-)

  5. Thanks for your recommendation... I'm always on the look-out for a decent book on writing skills!

    Hope I can lure you over to the MEET n' GREET going this (and every) weekend on my blog, after taking over from Michele! It'd be great to have you a part of the fun!

  6. Sage: Heal well and take your time. Writing about one's life is hard. That's why the best use co-writers to help stay on track I think.

  7. Be careful and don't try to get out and about too soon.

    Sage, have you read "Into the Wild" by Krakauer?

  8. Kontan, I decided yesterday that I was all better and went with my daughter's school ski club last night--but then I don't call downhill skiing in Michigan strenous.

    Gautami, you should write a book, you're a very talented poet.

    Pia, thanks and I agree about Zinsser writing helpful books on the craft of writing

    TC, I know you have some great trips planned! Next time, try one that involves a large backpack or a canoe--and take Murf along... You're book would be a hoot and far outsell Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods"

    Murf, what two books that I recommended that you liked? And I thought you were going to send Childs to Ed, someone who would enjoy and appreciate it

    Tanya, thanks for the invite

    Michael, Zinsser has some good advice, the best is to focus on the small, not the large picture

    Kenju, I've already broken your piece of advice :) No, I haven't read that one, I've read his "Under the Banner of Heaven," and "Into Thin Air"

  9. I'm sorry to have missed this book as I have spent the last three years, hopefully, getting my autobiography into a publishable state, but as I agree wholeheartedly with the points you mention maybe I'll get lucky.
    I hope you are totally fit soon. So glad Net Chick sent me along.

  10. Funny, two of my friends and I were talking about writing our life stories. This book sounds like a must-read for both of us.

    I like that line, "change is a tonic that can lead to new discoveries." It's a positive way of looking at life.

    I think your writing reflects many of his ideas (how you write about "self-contained incidents" from your past) and writing about your passions.

    It's important to be true to ourselves when we write instead of trying to please our readers. I totally agree with that.

  11. Very nice review.

    " Later, Zinsser suggests that if we have the choice between two projects, one we feel we ought to write and the other we see as fun, to take the fun one for it will show in our final product. "

    This reminds me of an interview I heard on NPR with Berkeley Breathed talking about why he was stopping the Opus cartoon and focusing on his books. It took his daughter commenting that she knew he was working on "Pete & Pickles" because he was laughing while he was drawing to make him do what made him happy.

  12. Thanks for the great review. I have this book on my make me want to get to it sooner than planned! Be well. B.

  13. Hi, thank you for the book review. Take care. God Bless.

  14. PI, good luck getting your autobiography published, that's neat!

    Scarlet, I do like a lot of what he has to say and have, for some time, tried to use such ideas

    Amber, there is something graceful about laughing while we work

    B, enjoy!

    Venus, thanks for stopping by!

  15. I've been published in the past. A very long time ago, but I aspire to do so again... I just don't write very well anymore, so this book just might help me out a little bit.

  16. The Alchemist and True Believer are the two of your books that I really enjoyed.

  17. Permission to be who we are--I like it.

    BTW, concerning the comment you left on my recent post, between you and me--I'll be telling myself the same thing in two months.

    20th and not 16th.:)

  19. Glad to hear you are healing nicely and getting around.

  20. I should probably print out that third paragraph and post it near my computer somewhere. I couldn't agree more. It's all in the details.