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 Live” 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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5 Responses to William Zinsser, Teacher

  1. I am struck again, through this lovely, loving tribute, at the wonder that is the community of writers.

  2. linda reid says:

    Hello Lary,
    I’m sitting at my desk, as I do every morning, surrounded by a mess and in search of clarity and organization. In an attempt to avoid writing, I open my email and go straight to your tribute. And as I look up from reading your wonderful piece, I see, in the third pile of books on my desk, teetering below The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart and balancing above Elements of Style, Zinsser’s 30th anniversary edition, On Writing Well.
    Thank you for making me cry Lary. Im not kidding. It’s moment like these that remind me why writing is my religion-that and I don’t have much time for church.

    I wish I could have met the man in person, but I thank you Lary, for bringing him into my little room this morning, as I struggle “not to commit an act of literature,” and for giving me the opportunity to be touched by his and your words.
    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you,
    Linda

    • larybloom says:

      Thanks, Linda. When I think of Bill Zinsser now, I’ll also be thinking that he will inspire you, too. Like Cindy, you have a gift. Like Cindy, obstacles get in the way, and doubt sets in. But think of it this way. You were sitting at that table with us, and Bill, blind though he was, saw something in you that perhaps you didn’t see yourself.

  3. Bill says:

    Timing is all, as are some typos worthy of remarking upon. “Afraid to Life” is what you wrote rather than “Afraid to Live”. Taken with the observation that many – perhaps far too many – of your recent musings focus on the recently departed might I suggest “On Writing Will” might offer the delicious combination of humor and irony to which you aspire, and attain, so well for us readers. And, as Cindy Brown Austin’s former 8th grade teacher – briefly – I both congratulate her and look forward to reading her new book.

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