People often refer to writers as wordsmiths. But words alone can’t get the job done. This column will sometimes depart from offering techniques for clear writing to look for inspiration from gifted writers.
For writing to amount to something valuable it needs substance. Meet a master of finding and delivering substance — William Zinsser.
Every Friday morning five years ago, I couldn’t wait to read his latest column on the American Scholar website; his book “On Writing Well” has long served as the Bible for people who want to improve their craft.
In a column headlined “Summer House Reading,” he described what he felt upon entering a house he and his family had rented for the season: the joy of discovering what books lived in that house. One summer he found “The Oriental Mysteries of Dr. Fu Manchu,” published in the early 1900s.
Instantly, I looked up at my bookcase and spotted the nine volumes of those Oriental Mysteries that my cousin David gave me when I was 15.
I wrote to Zinsser, whom I had never met, introducing myself, telling him about the Fu Manchu coincidence and ending by saying, on behalf of myself and my college students, “I cannot thank you enough for the contribution you are.”
I wondered if I would get an answer.
Five days later the phone rang, and the caller said: “This is Bill Zinsser. Do you ever come to New York? I’d like to know more about you.”
Great. Here’s why:
First, he was all curiosity, no ego.
Second, I already had a trip booked to New York.
And third, we spent three and a half hours together at lunch, talking about writers he knew whose work I revered, about people we both knew, and about our common experiences as reporters.
He had written 17 books, ranging from one about two American jazz musicians performing in China, to one about baseball spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates and another about the Great American Songbook.
His latest — “American Places” — contained observations he recorded in his mid-80s about iconic sites he had never visited, such as Mount Rushmore and Niagara Falls. He said he chose never to interview tourists — “All they ever have to say is, ‘Gee whiz!’ ” — but to talk instead with people who lived and worked in those places, so that he could get a sense of the culture.
When Zinsser turned 87, he went back to his prep school, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, to receive a lifetime achievement award. During a classroom discussion of “American Places,” a student intoned: “Sir, when you undertook this project, did you have an overarching vision … ?”
“At that moment,” Zinsser told me, “I wanted to say, ‘Hey, kid, I’m just trying to have an interesting life.’ ”
Curiosity is crucial to shaping an interesting life, and it brings substance to your writing. You can do more than make your writing clear and concise: You can harness your curiosity to make your writing compelling.
Gary Gilson, a Twin Cities writing coach and five-time Emmy Award winner in public television, has taught writing-intensive journalism courses at Colorado College for 22 years. Contact him through www.writebetterwithgary.com.