10 years ago I had the incredible good fortune of sitting down with William Zinsser, author of “On Writing Well,” which sold 1.5 million copies. Zinsser wrote over a dozen other books, taught at Yale among other places, was a drama editor and a movie critic for The New York Herald Tribune and served as executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club. He passed away on Tuesday at the age of 92. When I heard that news just today I immediately found my copy of his most famous book and I sat reading it for over an hour. Then I went back into the chapter of my novel that I had been editing and read the entire thing out loud. “Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write,” Mr. Zinsser wrote, and he was right.
I met Mr. Zinsser because my father very randomly shared an office hallway with him in Manhattan for about six months. My dad was there for six months, I should say. I think Mr. Zinsser had been there for thirty five years. Somehow the two got to talking about me and my writing aspirations. At the time I didn’t even have this blog, but I was desperate to be writing somewhere, and I was spending time in between my terrible post-grad jobs crafting short stories and essays. The one my dad convinced me to share with Mr. Zinsser was called “Birdie’s Song” and it was about an old woman that I met at an old women’s home in Kingston, Jamaica. It’s still one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.
I was so nervous to sit across from his desk and hear his thoughts on the piece. At 82 he was incredibly sharp but still slow and thoughtful in conversation – relaxed, really. It made me even more nervous. I didn’t know what to expect from our time together – would he give me notes? help me find work? tell me to consider another profession?
“It’s a lovely piece,” he said to me. “Yep, you’re a writer.”
And that was the most we talked about writing during the entire 30 minutes. He wanted to know what I was up to, where I’d come from and where I was headed. He asked what I thought about Manhattan and where else I thought I might want to live. I think we talked about pizza in Greenwich Village. I was too excited to be in his presence to wonder why we weren’t talking about exactly how I was going to become a writer and how he might help, but I now realize that he wasn’t worried about those details. He just wanted to chat and hear my voice. I remember him as an incredibly sweet man.
I think about Mr. Zinsser a lot when I’m feeling down about my writing. I think, “the man who wrote the book on writing told me that I’m a writer, so it must be true!” Most of the time it works, which is the first reason that I’m incredibly grateful for this incredible man. The other is for his book. Buy it today in honor of the Mr. Zinsser – my mentor for 30 minutes.
To help convince you, here is a great post that my friend Tom Bentley linked to from a great writer/blogger James Altucher