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William Zinsser, the man who taught a nation to write well

The author of ‘On Writing Well’ and a mentor to many writers has died at 92

I once told William Zinsser that his office was an oasis of writing, which made him smile. Inside that uncluttered office on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, nothing mattered but the work and pleasure of writing. Everything else — publishers, agents, the demise of print, the rise of free content, anxieties about success, failure and Amazon rankings — you left at the door.

Zinsser, who died on Tuesday at the age of 92, was the author of "On Writing Well" and 18 other books about writing, travel, memories and music. He was also a generous mentor to other writers. Through his books, he taught millions of people to write better by demonstrating simple, clear sentences and an authentic voice.

A few hundred people, including me, were lucky enough to hear his advice in person. I had an in: Zinsser was married to my cousin Caroline Fraser Zinsser, who is a fine writer herself and shares his curiosity about the small stories that reveal our common humanity. As a relative, I felt comfortable asking him for advice. After I got to know him, I realized he was just as welcoming to strangers who called up with writing problems.

In Zinsser’s office, writing was sacred. Woody Allen must have recognized some confessorial quality in Zinsser when he saw him on the street in Manhattan and cast him as a priest in “Broadway Danny Rose.” I always felt nervous there, staring at a white abstract painting by his son, John Zinsser. William Zinsser was warm, but he cut out small talk and got right to the matter at hand. Just the knowledge that he was listening intently and didn’t suffer nonsense clarified my thinking fast.

At one visit, he asked what book I was working on. I told him I wasn’t writing a book, because my last one had been a best-seller, and my agent didn’t think that any of my ideas since then would sell as well, so I wasn’t writing anything. He paused. “You’re a writer, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

“So why aren’t you writing? Do you have any idea how stupid what you just said sounded?” he said. “You’re a writer!”

Then he delivered one of his most pleasurable sermons — about how you don’t write to sell, you don’t write what your agent or your publisher wants you to write, you write for the process of finding a true story, and you write for the reader.

“The central problem in most writing is the American obsession with the finished product,” he said. “Most Americans setting out on a memoir can picture the jacket of the book — the headline, title, byline and a charming tintype of a child with a pail by the seashore,” he said. “The only thing they haven’t thought about is how to write the damn thing.”

You can’t plan a book, he once told me. You have to respect the process. When you start to write, you’ll find that the story won’t turn out the way you imagined it, but it will be truer to your life. “Forget the final product and start writing the damned story.”

The next time I visited, I had started writing a new memoir. But, I confessed, the story was boring as hell. I was writing about building a house in Mexico, and so far, the only other character in the book was a dull real estate agent, and the building process went smoothly. No stakes, no drama.

“Why did you build the house?” Zinsser asked. “What was the quest you were on?”

I couldn’t answer, because it would take me 200 more pages of writing to figure it out. But it was the key to the book.

“I’m a great believer in writers embarking on quests or pilgrimages,” Zinsser said.

That quest may not be a grand adventure. He tells his students to think small when they’re looking for their narrative.

“Most people sit down to write a memoir and think it’s the story of their wonderful life, that they have to write something that will be certifiably important and worthy,” he said. “They put together a chain of events which are worthy, but not necessarily very interesting.” He tells his students to forget the memoir and write about memories that stick with them.

“They rummage around, I wait them out, and finally they say something like, ‘I’ll never forget the day when my father and I …’ and they tell a story that is so minimal it’s universal. Most writers forget how the smallest things yield the biggest emotional wallop.” He tells his students to relax, and not worry, as he put it, whether someone at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop will say, “What a stunning comment on the human condition.”

Zinsser encouraged me, and so many others, to write for the sake of writing. He offered us tools to write better, cutting away clutter to get to the core. He gave us permission to be ourselves on the page and to enjoy writing so our readers would enjoy it, too.

His words are a tonic in the world of content and dollars per word. When I’m itching to write, to explore without a clear plan, his advice gives me courage. He’s gone now, but his words keep coming to me at my keyboard.

Zinsser was brilliant at teaching craft and story, and left the world with a lot of better writers. But the greatest thing he offered me, writer to writer, was faith.

Laura Fraser is the editorial director of Shebooks and the author of "An Italian Affair" and "All Over the Map."

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