Thursday, August 9, 2012

William Zinsser on writing about your life

“… Writing about one’s life is a powerful human need. Who doesn’t want to leave behind some record of his or her accomplishments and thoughts and emotions?” asks William Zinsser, revered as a master teacher, a writer’s writer.

“If it’s a family history it will have the further value of telling your children and your grandchildren who they are and what heritage they come from. Writers are the custodians of memory, and memories have a way of dying with their owner. One of the saddest sentences I know is ‘I wish I had asked my mother about that.’

“… Beware of deciding in advance how your memoir or your family history will be organized and what it will say,” he says.

“Don’t visualize the finished product at the end of your journey; it will look different when you get there. Be ready to be surprised by the crazy, wonderful events that will come dancing out of your past when you stir the pot of memory. Embrace those long-lost visitors. If they shove aside some events you originally thought you wanted to write about, it’s because they have more vitality. Go with what interests and amuses you. Trust the process, and the product will take care of itself.

“… Think small.… Only a thousand words … tells you much of what you need to know about me and my family and my values.… Don’t rummage around in your past for ‘important’ events.… Write about small, self-contained incidents.… If you remember them it’s because they contain a larger truth that your readers will recognize in their own lives. Think small and you’ll wind up finding the big themes in your family saga.” (William Zinsser, Writing About Life; emphasis mine)

If you haven’t invested in any of Zinsser’s books, do so. He is a dear, wise, old man—witty, encouraging, experienced, a brilliant writing instructor, and a storyteller through and through. 


  1. I love reading Zinsser! Almost as much as I love reading your post about Zinsser. :) Especially fond of that last quote. Thanks for honoring him as one of the gurus among memoir educators.

  2. Hi, Sherrey, I shudder to think what a writer's life would be like without Zinsser. What a gem he is!

    Thanks for stopping by. Hope your summer has gone well.