Sunday, May 31, 2015

William Zinsser: An Excerpt From "Writing Places - The Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher"

Here is an excerpt from William Zinsser's  "Writing Places - The Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher" that shows what a good writer he is.

Pamela Fiori, editor of Town & Country, which for a century had catechized  its readers  on the
manners  of the Eastern  estab­ lishment, found  me useful  as her  house  WASP,  a writer  born
into  that  milieu  who  knew  its curious  customs.  One  day  she asked me to write a piece about
my lifelong rebellion against my WASP heritage  and my difficulty  in coming to terms  with it. I
tried to beg off, but she was adamant.

“How  many words?”  I asked. “A thousand words,” she said.

“You’re  asking me to write the story of my life in a thousand words!” I said.

“Yes,”  she said. She had no pity. I went and tried to write the story of my life in 1,000 words,
but it came to 1,800 words,  all awkwardly  born.  I took it home and told Caroline  I was hope­
lessly stuck. She went off to read it, and when she came back she said, “The good news is, it’s
salvageable.” That’s  all any writer really  wants  to  hear,  and  I wrestled  the  piece  down
to  1,000 words.  Called “A Reluctant WASP”  in Town & Country, it had an early passage that
mentioned some of my old resentments:

My parents  had great humor  and charm.  In a word,  they were attractive.  Their   house  was  
attractive  and  everything  in  it was attractive. That  was the point  of being a WASP: to be attractive. The  laws were coded  into my metabolism at an early age. Gaudy  clothes  and flashy 
cars were  out.  Understatement was in. A sweater  the color of oatmeal was as attractive as you 
could  get.  I was careful  never  to be seen in a green  jacket  or tan shoes, or to use the wrong 
 language.  I said “curtains,” not “drapes.” I said “rich,” not “wealthy.

Still, attractive as I was,  I hated  the  word.  “Is  he attractive?”  or “Is she attractive?” 
my mother or my sisters  would ask when  I talked  about  someone  I had met.  “Why  don’t  you ask  whether  they’re   interesting?  Or  smart?” I  would  snap, crabby as an old socialist. But the 
word has never stopped following me around. Nor has the incessant  naming of names. When  I run  
into my WASP friends  I know  I’ll soon hear  the tinkle of tribal connections. “You’ll never guess 
who I saw last week.  Muffy  Pratt!  She knew  your  sister  at  Smith,  and  her sister Cissy was 
my roommate at St. Tim’s.  Wasn’t her brother Chip  in  your  class  at  Deerfield?” Even  if  he  
was,  I  don’t admit  it. I deny  all memory  of the people  mentioned in these conversations.

But   I  knew   I  couldn’t   get  off  that   easy.  Anybody   can complain,   and  many  writers
 do,  especially  memoir   writers, masters  of retroactive blame.  The  hard  job is to get beyond
 the ancient  grievances  and arrive  at a larger  point—some moment of acceptance  and healing.
Without such a point my piece could never succeed; it would be mere whining,  not helpful to anyone else. Caroline had long urged  me to stop knocking  my heritage and to acknowledge  its strengths,
which had shaped  my values. Of course she was right,  and so was Pamela Fiori.  It was time to
grow up.

Here’s how my piece ended:

And yet . . . who am I kidding?  My origins leak through every effort to conceal them.  I look like 
an old WASP (horn-rimmed glasses) and I have the habits  of an old WASP.  I always wear a tie and a jacket in the city and on planes and trains.  (The  jacket comes from  J. Press.)  When  I see a 
picture in the  newspaper of a businessman without a tie,  I just  know  I wouldn’t  want him  
handling  my  business.  I always  wear  a hat.  I have  very few clothes.  I don’t  own any 
electronic  gadgetry. I drive  what my wife calls “an incredibly self-effacing car.”  I’m punctual. 
I never make a scene in public.  I write personal  letters  by hand.

I’m aware that WASPs are a dying class. They  are the only ethnic minority that other  Americans  
may safely deride.  But I also know that no class has so deeply imprinted its core values on the 
national  character: honor,  hard  work,  rectitude, public service. By today’s standards of civic 
and corporate governance those  values  look good,  and  I’m proud  to be associated  with them.
Today  I often  recognize  fellow  WASPs  of my  generation on the sidewalks of New York. They are always “nicely” dressed—old men  and  women  facing the  day with  vigor  and good cheer,  
disregarding the  infirmities of age as they  hurry to their  next hospital  board meeting  or 
school tutoring session or  fund-raising event  for  some  underfunded worthy   cause.
There’s  something about them that’s—well, attractive.

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