by William Zinsser ’40
2010 Heritage Award Recipient, October 5, 2010
Good morning. I’m very glad to be here with you today. I accept this award with happy memories of my Deerfield years and with gratitude for the strong foundation it gave me for the “lifetime achievement” that you are helping me celebrate. I also was one of the few Deerfield boys living in this sheltered village who made contact with the American workplace. As a senior, I was managing editor of the Deerfield Scroll, and every two weeks we went to the printing shop of E.A. Hall & Company, in Greenfield, to “make up” the paper. I still remember the two printers, Bert and Herb, and how kind they were to the newspaper-crazy kid. They showed me how to set type and taught me other skills that would serve me well when I grew up and actually went to work for a newspaper.
I came to Deerfield as a freshman in 1936, which means – as all you guys with high test scores have already figured out – that I’m well into my 80s. And you are in your teens. Quite a gap. So I wondered how I could throw some kind of rope ladder across that vast chasm separating your generation and mine. But then the obvious answer came to me. We are all on the same journey. Whatever our age, whatever decade we were born into, we are all trying to have an interesting life.
Most people don’t really give much thought to how to have – and keep having – an interesting life. They’re too busy being busy. Or they don’t think they can do anything about it; life is a product, determined by other people’s decisions. It’s not. All of you, in this auditorium, can shape and continue to reshape your life, far more than you imagine.
In the early 1990’s I wrote a book called American Places, which was a pilgrimage to 16 iconic American sites. Some were heavily touristed, like Niagara Falls and Mount Rushmore and the Alamo. Others were places that embodied a powerful idea about American ideals and aspirations – like Kitty Hawk, the barren beach in North Carolina, where the Wright brothers invented flight, and Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain invented the myth of an idyllic Mississippi River childhood. I had never visited any of those 16 places: I was an American history dunce. I had no idea what happened at the Alamo, or even where it was. I had no idea what the British did when they marched to Lexington and Concord in 1775. It seems they started the American Revolution.
So I decided to make that the next step in my continuing education – to visit those places and learn about them by writing about them. Those were two exhilarating years; all the things I learned were things I had never thought about before.
Many years later a student asked me the kind of question that only gets put to authors. It was something like: “When you wrote American Places, did you conceive it as a series of discrete entities? Or was it rather an over-arching vision…?” I think you know the kind of question it was, and I thought, “Give me a break!” Finally I said, “You know, I’m just trying to have an interesting life.” There was a gasp in the classroom, as if to say, “What kind of answer is that?” But it was probably the best answer I ever gave. I go around looking for things that interest me, and then I make a narrative arrangement of them that I hope will interest other people. I don’t think of my life as a product. It’s a continuing process.
A corrosive American disease, I think, is the worship of the successful finished product: the winning Little League team, the high SAT score, the gazillion-dollar salary. The coach who finishes second is a failure, though he may well have taught more valuable lessons than how to finish first: matters of sportsmanship, or grace under pressure, or how to deal with losing.
For writers the successful finished product is the check. For many years I’ve taught an adult course in memoir-writing, and I’ve found that most people embarking on a memoir can already picture the jacket of the book. They can see the title, in beautiful cursive letters. They can see their own name, in even bigger letters. They can see the tinted photograph of a child by the seashore with a pail. They can also picture exactly what the book will say – its seamless narrative from beginning to end. “So,” I ask, “what’s your problem?” (Translation: “Why are you taking this course?”) Their problem, they say, is how to find an agent and get the memoir published. They have thought of everything except how to actually write the book. But they will only arrive at that product by going through the process of getting there, making all the decisions – matters of tone, tense, voice, attitude, selection, compression, chronology, privacy – that will gradually tell them what kind of book they’re writing, and the finished book will be very different from the one they were so sure they intended to write.
That’s true of every art, as you are all finding out in your music classes and dance classes and painting classes and theater workshops. Bach and Picasso discovered what they wanted to say by laboriously trying to way it. Art doesn’t come pre-packaged. Neither does an interesting life.
So let’s take a closer look at the “lifetime achievement” that’s being honored here today. You probably assume that my life followed a tidy blueprint to the pot of gold – success! – at the end of the rainbow. Here’s what actually happened.
My father’s grandfather came over from Germany in 1849 with a process for making Shellac. He founded a business called William Zinsser & Company and built a small factory and house far uptown, at what is now 10th Avenue and 59th Street. I have an old photograph of those two buildings, all alone in a rocky field sloping down to the Hudson River; the only living creature is a goat.
The business stayed on that block for 125 years. At first, it was run by my father’s grandfather, and then by my father’s father, and then by my father. He had three daughters before he had me – the fourth, William Zinsser – and he looked forward to the day that I would join him. The idea that daughters could run a business as well as a son, or better, was still a generation away. For me it was a ready-made career: life security.
But I had a different dream. I wanted to be a newspaperman, and when I got home from World War II I got a job with the New York Herald Tribune, the paper I had idolized as a boy, and told my father I wouldn’t be entering the firm. It was a painful moment for us both. The gods of continuity and family obligation had hovered over my boyhood; it’s very unusual for a business to stay in the same family on the same Manhattan block for more than 100 years. But my father gave me his blessing – which is the best gift a parent can bestow, freeing me to succeed or fail on my own terms.
At the Herald Tribune I had the best job in the world – my boyhood dream had come true. But the paper started to lose money, and the owners tried to save it with various gimmicks to lure “the masses” – cheap gossip columns, a green sports section – that slowly eroded the character of the paper. (The masses also stayed away; they knew when they were being patronized.) The Herald Tribune’s values, which had shaped my lifelong ethic as a writer, starting when I was a kid spreading the paper on the rug because I was too small to hold it, were now lower than my values. I don’t want to work for people I don’t respect – and I don’t think you should either. Finally, one day, I went to the managing editor, who was sitting in the same chair at the head of the same long table where he had hired me 13 years earlier, and told him I felt I had to resign. The best job in the world was over.
When I called my wife to tell her what I had done, she said, “What are you going to do now?” I thought it was a fair question – by then we had a one-year-old daughter. I said, “I guess I’m a free-lance writer.”
And that’s what I was for next 11 years, sitting alone in our New York apartment, grinding out magazine articles to pay the bills. That was the last time a free-lance writer in America could be a generalist, writing for general-interest magazines, before television took away all their consumer advertising: Cars! Refrigerators! Washing machines! Beautiful towels being hugged by beautiful housewives!
I wrote many pieces for the Saturday Evening Post. Then the Post died. Then I wrote a column for Look. Then Look died. (Meanwhile the Herald Tribune also died.) Then I got a contract to write for Life, until one day my editor called and said, “Whatever you’ve got in your typewriter, send it to someone else.” Even mighty Life had died. My past was littered with the bones of failed journalistic enterprises. But I didn’t take it personally; that’s the kind of profession it is. Writers should live in the expectation that they will wake up some morning and find that their bosses have left during the night.
But by then I knew that something was missing in my life. Me. My writing served other people’s purposes; it had no emotional life of its own. I was a gregarious middle-aged man stuck in solitary drudgery. I needed to radically change the direction of my life – to put myself in touch with people and with my emotions. But how? I had always wanted to teach. Maybe I could get a job at some kind of college.
I decided to give it a try. I began writing letters to college presidents, and provosts, and deans all over the country. I explained that I wanted to teach a course in nonfiction writing, which, at that time, was hardly taught – as a craft or as a literature – in the American educational system. (It still isn’t.) The presidents and provosts and deans wrote back, and none of them said I was crazy. But as administrators they were enmeshed in the machinery of academic delay: five-year plans, steering committees, curriculum reviews. I saw that this was a world where nobody was in any hurry.
So I widened my search and began writing letters to everyone I knew or admired who had some connection with a college. I believe that one thing leads to another; if you tell enough people about your hopes and dreams, someday a circle will connect. I wrote those letters – typing them one-by-one on my Underwood – for almost two years, holding out my hat to America by mail.
I was about to give up when one night I got a phone call from a distinguished Yale professor and biographer named R.W.B. Lewis; one of his former students had seen my letter and sent it to him. Lewis knew my work, and he said he would let me teach my course, on an experimental basis, for one term. And on that slender thread we sold our apartment and moved to New Haven, a city where we had never set foot.
At Yale I created the nonfiction writing course that would become the book On Writing Well. I also became master of one of Yale’s residential colleges – which was a sharp break with its tradition. Yale’s college masters were tribal elders: tenured professors with sterling academic credentials. I was a journalist (God forbid), with only a B.A. degree from Princeton (God forbid). I was able to break the mold because I never stopped believing that somehow I could. You can do that, too. Don’t believe anyone who says, “It can’t be done,” or “It’s always been done this way.” Don’t become the prisoner of expectations that aren’t the right ones for you.
That move to Yale turned my life around. It led to all the achievements – as a writer, and a teacher, and a mentor – that have made the second half of my life endlessly interesting. After a decade at Yale, I would uproot my life two more times, moving on to new territory when the old work ceased to be interesting. In 1993 I described those successive uprootings in a commencement talk at Wesleyan University. My message to the graduating seniors was: change is tonic. Afterward, three professors in cap and gown came up to me, and one of them said, “That does it! I’m getting out of this dead-ass job.” Wesleyan later sent my talk to all its alumni, and I still hear from some of them. They want to tell me about career changes they made that reinvigorated their lives in ways they never dared to consider. Think about your life as a process and the product will take care of itself.
In that connection I’d like to introduce you to my wife, Caroline Zinsser, who has invented a life at least as interesting as mine. When I went to Deerfield it was a boys’ school – obviously a cruel deprivation. Today, as I look out at so many lively female faces, I want to be sure you keep remembering that the interesting life is no less a beautiful balloon for you to catch and run with. As a writing teacher I’m struck by how unconfident American women still are, how doubtful of the validity of the story they want to tell. Don’t do that to yourself. You don’t need permission to believe in your life narrative.
Caroline Zinsser’s self-invented life goes like this. She came to New York from the Midwest to be a writer and got a job as a reporter for Life. After our children were born she got a teaching degree and taught in inner-city schools, first in East Harlem and then in New Haven, during the educationally innovative in the ‘60s and ‘70s. After that she became head of a private school in New Haven and then head of the Bank Street School for Children in New York. At the age of 50 she left the front-line trenches and went back to college, getting a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. That led to a job doing advocacy work in the dawning field of day care; she was one of its pioneer women. From there she was hired by the Rockefeller Brother Fund, to be its program Officer for Education, creating a landmark program of fellowships that placed hundreds of exceptional minority college students in teaching positions. After her retirement she switched careers again and became a historian, writing two books of Connecticut local history; the second one was published a few weeks ago. She hasn’t told me what she’s going to do next.
The point is that both of us have met hundreds of interesting people, and have also been enabled to do useful work, by living our lives as an evolving process, not as a finished product. And we still do. This year I began writing a weekly blog, Zinsser on Friday – still another leap into unchartered territory. I don’t want to be stuck in the 20th century.
Finally, enjoyment. I think I’m the only teacher who emphasizes enjoyment as an important component in the arts. In my own writing I’ve always made a conscious effort to generate a sense of enjoyment – to convey the idea that I found the events I’m describing more than ordinarily interesting, or unusual, or amusing, or emotional, or bizarre. Otherwise why bother to describe them? I also try to convey the idea that I was feeling great when I did my writing – which I almost never was; writing well is hard work. But readers have a right to believe that I was having a good time taking them on my chosen voyage.
If something funny occurs to me when I’m writing, I throw it in just to keep myself cheered up. I never worry that some readers won’t “get it;” I know that 28.6 percent of the population has no sense of humor – no idea that there are people in the world trying to entertain them. I don’t want those readers anyway, and they don’t want me.
The American impressionist Robert Henri once gave this advice to artists: “You should paint like a man coming over the top of the hill singing.” That’s also how you should write, sing, act, dance, draw, sculpt, play an instrument, take a photograph, design a building, live a life. Most writers take the act of writing with grim solemnity, fearful that they won’t be worthy of the gods of literature scowling down from Mount Parnassus. Or is that they take themselves too seriously? Please! Take your work seriously, not yourself.
Much of what I know I’ve learned by asking questions. My conversational style is inquisitorial. I want to know people’s names, and where they grew up, and where their family came from. Small stuff, but often amazing in its emotional wallop. My product is people, my playing field the external world. I don’t want to text people if I can tell them on the phone and hear their voice. I don’t want to hear their voice on the phone if I can meet them and see their eyes. I don’t want to walk around New York City talking on a cell phone to someone who is somewhere else. I would miss too much. I would miss seeing and hearing – and overhearing – the things that give me an interesting life. I want to be alive in the present moment that I’ve been given to be alive in.
I like having people from all corners of my past and present life call me or come to see me at my office in New York. (That goes for any of you.) Last spring I got a call from a woman in Kuwait. She said she was reading On Writing Well and had some questions. Could she come and talk to me? I thought, well, it’s her nickel or her dinar, and a few weeks later she was in my office, wearing a burka and bringing me a gift of dates, sumptuously packaged in a mahogany box.
My biggest concern for your generation is that you will let all the new technologies suck you deeper into isolation and thereby drain you of your humanity. Last week Google announced a new feature called Google Instant, which, it claims, will find what you are looking for when you’ve only typed one or two letters. “This option,” Google explained, “saves the searcher two to five seconds per search.”
Please don’t divide your life into seconds. Life is people – men, and women, and children going about the business of being people. Give every encounter as much time as it needs, and give it your undivided attention. Enjoy the process of living interestingly. Make that your lifetime achievement.
Thank you very much, and good luck to you all.