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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.

Philip Levine

When I heard of the death of the poet Philip Levine, I thought of his brother, Ed, who wasn’t mentioned in the New York Times front-page obit. I’d never met Ed, but I remember the way Philip talked about him. It was with love, of course, and with respect for the way Ed made aContinue Reading

Remembering P.D. James

I am late in weighing in on the death of P.D. James, whom I knew in two ways — as a devoted reader of her Adam Dalgleish novels and as a colleague in a writers conference in Key West many years ago. I remember that, walking to a panel discussion, she took my arm andContinue Reading

A Week With Roya in Italy

  A few years ago, the director of Fairfield University’s MFA in creative writing called me into a meeting on Enders Island, where we held our residencies. He’d also summoned fellow faculty member Roya Hakakian. Each of us had been scheduled to deliver writing seminars in about thirty minutes’ time. Michael C. White told usContinue Reading

Goldfinching: Four Ways to Experience a Masterpiece

The endurance course titled “The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt’s modern 784-page masterpiece, tests the standard of making every word count. I won’t argue here that she did. The ending alone — a long discourse on the Meaning of Something or Other — may inspire a reader to ask, “I’ve come call this way for this?” OnContinue Reading

Klinghoffer and Artistic Freedom Die

If you write fiction, nonfiction, poetry or any combination of these, the recent tragic aria sung at the Metropolitan Opera House should make you shiver. Those of us who create for a living already face sufficient obstacles – the demands of the work itself and the fickle nature of the marketplace immediately come to mind.Continue Reading

25 Books I Love To Hear (Part 1)

I listened to my first unabridged audio book in 1989 while commuting. In all over the last 25 years, though that commute ended long ago, I’ve heard more than 200 novels, memoirs and nonfiction books. Brilliant actors such as Henry Strozier, Barbara Rosenblatt, Simon Vance, George Guidall and John McDonough have made great books jumpContinue Reading

Fearing a Poet’s Power

Ricky Greenfield died last month. He was an accomplished businessman who, steadfast in his intolerance, became my literary benefactor. And for that I remain grateful. Many years ago, Greenfield bought the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, a weekly that circulated around the state and once — in the golden age when people actually read newspapers — hadContinue Reading

Make Lunch, Write a Book

How do books come about? The most common way is when a writer gets an idea and then slaves over that idea for anywhere from ninety days (the remarkable achievement of memoirist Carlos Eire, in “Waiting for Snow in Havana”) to a decade (Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding”) or more. Another method of creation:Continue Reading

The John McPhee Reader

John McPhee’s work appears in nearly every writing class I teach. I offer it as a prime example of the carefully constructed and compelling narrative, though I have little interest in the subjects he writes about. I was never curious, for example, about the geology of the Grand Tetons or the intricacies of cattle brandingContinue Reading