William Zinsser, Teacher

He committed no "acts of literature."

He committed no “acts of literature.”

The last time I saw William Zinsser was the summer of 2013 at the house in Niantic, CT., where he lived with his wife Caroline during the summer months. He was completely blind by then, a result of severe glaucoma. But, as he sat with the writer Cindy Brown Austin, whom I brought to the master for some advice, he seemed to see quite clearly. He listened to her carefully — how she had grown up as a child of the projects of Hartford, and how, as an adult, she kept returning to those neighborhoods to attend the funerals of boys and young men, victims of poverty, racism, and, in many cases, their own bad choices. Cindy wanted to write that story in a memoir that would inspire a national conversation about urban hopelessness, but required some guidance, and was thrilled that the author of the classic “On Writing Well” would take an interest in her. In fact, when I called him about her, he insisted I bring her to him.

There were four of us at the kitchen table in Niantic — Cindy, Bill, my wife Suzanne, and I, and we were there for at least two hours during which a lifetime of wisdom was imparted. Bill was selective about the projects he invested in. He knew he had limited time, and limited energy. And so, after listening to Cindy, he offered his encouragement and suggestions. He even suggested a title for the book, drawn from Cindy’s sense of terror and fright, “Afraid to Live.” As I watched him counsel Cindy, I remembered other times in his presence, listening to him speak at conferences, or having the opportunity to talk with him one on one. And I remembered, too, that I have shamelessly quoted him when teaching writing over the years — particularly his warning to refrain, in the first sentences of a piece, from “committing an act of literature.”

Just two days ago, I sent the obit of Bill Zinsser that appeared in the Times to Cindy. We both lamented the master’s passing. But, Cindy, who serves as a minister, agreed that the timing of his death was not accidental — it was on the same day that she got word that “Afraid to Life” had been bought by a major publisher. She was certain that Zinsser, blind though had been, could now see the delight on the face of his star pupil.

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