Book of essays a fine example of craftsmanship


When asked to explain the brisk pace of his novels, Elmore Leonard said, “I leave out the parts that people skip.” You will not want to skip anything in William Zinsser’s short essays written for the American Scholar magazine’s website and now collected in “The Writer Who Stayed,” a book that begins with him wondering why “every year student writing is a little more disheveled.”

One answer is that too few have read Zinsser’s earlier book “On Writing Well.” His answer is: “People now get their information mainly from random images on a screen and from random messages in their ears, and it no longer occurs to them that writing is linear and sequential, sentence B must follow sentence A.”

Tooting his own trumpet is not the style of this self-effacing and decorous WASP, who never leaves his Manhattan apartment or boards a plane or train without a jacket (J. Press, of course) and tie. Others, however, who cherish the craft of writing should toot it for him, lest young writers miss exposure to lapidary sentences such as: “I doubt if I’m the only person who has never quite understood what postmodern means, or how long post is supposed to last; the word floats in a vast sea of postness.”

Style reflects sensibility, and Zinsser’s style of clarity and economy derives from a sensibility that recoils from blurry words that carry deplorable thinking the way mosquitoes carry malaria. When his broker tells him a new person will be the “assistant assigned to your relationship,” Zinsser wonders whether he has relationships with his barber, and with Maria at the coffee shop. “Cole Porter,” he notes, “didn’t write, ‘let’s do it, let’s have a relationship.’” And nobody, nowadays, is too young to have issues:

“Toddlers have sandbox issues. Issues are what used to be called the routine hills and bumps of getting from morning to night. They have been around a long time; Job had issues. By calling them issues we wrap ourselves in the palliative language of therapy. We no longer phone or visit friends who are in trouble; we reach out to them. That way we can find closure.”

Then there is sharing, “the word I most loathe in the feel-good lexicon.” Beginning in the 1970s, “share” crept on little lizard feet into conversations, a signal that the speaker is about to tell you some personal matter about which he should remain reticent. Now, Zinsser says, “share” is a synonym for “tell”: “‘Did Rick share with you that we’re coming for dinner tonight?’ He did. He told me.”

“Writing,” Zinsser says, “is learned by imitation; we all need models.” This columnist has had two, columnist Murray Kempton and novelist P.G. Wodehouse.

Some of Zinsser’s models were lyricists of the Great American Songbook. A few were WASPs; Cole Porter went to Yale. Many were Jews, such as Israel Baline from Siberia who became Irving Berlin, immigrants who, Zinsser says, embraced the American language with fierce love. Or E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, who saw infinite possibilities “Over the Rainbow,” where happy little bluebirds fly and troubles melt like lemon drops.

Our “endlessly supple” English language will, Zinsser says, “do anything you ask it to do, if you treat it well. Try it and see.” Try him and see craftsmanship.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in News

Police: Minnesota man arrested for threatening Social Security employees
Police: Minnesota man arrested for threatening Social Security employees

A Minnesota man was arrested Wednesday after threatening employees at a Social Security office, KAAL reported. >> Read more trending news According to Capt. John Sherwin of the Rochester Police Department, Leonard Booth, 26, walked into the Social Security office at 10:15 a.m. and complained that he was unable to receive benefits. Booth...
Dozens of crawdads crawl through New Mexico neighborhood
Dozens of crawdads crawl through New Mexico neighborhood

New Mexico residents were surprised Thursday morning to see dozens of crawdads walking down an Albuquerque street, KRQE reported. >> Read more trending news As Albert Valdez left his home on a stormy morning, he observed a strange scene at the end of his driveway. “As I got out of my truck, there was a crawdad walking down the middle of...
Michigan teen charged with embezzling thousands from Kroger store
Michigan teen charged with embezzling thousands from Kroger store

A Michigan teenager was charged with embezzlement after police said she stole thousands of dollars from a Kroger store, WTVG reported. >> Read more trending news According to a news release from Dundee village manager Dave Uhl, 18-year-old Chenoa Nestor worked at a Kroger in the town. Documents show that Kroger’s management discovered that...
Oklahoma man cleans Tulsa streets to ‘right his wrongs’
Oklahoma man cleans Tulsa streets to ‘right his wrongs’

A homeless man in Oklahoma is cleaning the streets of Tulsa in order to “right his wrongs,” according to police. >> Read more trending news Officer Popsey Floyd posted the story about Brian Freeman, aka Cleaner, on his Facebook page Wednesday. Floyd said that officers observed a line of trash bags on a Tulsa street and tracked down...
AMA calls skinny repeal toxic
AMA calls skinny repeal toxic

The American Medical Association, the biggest organization representing U.S. doctors, blasted a “skinny repeal” option unveiled in the U.S. Senate Thursday night. “Action is needed to address problems in the individual insurance market, but the so-called ‘skinny’ bill is a toxic prescription that would make matters worse...
More Stories