Zinsser on Writing Memoir Well: “Think Small”

randomstoryteller.com papers on floor
“The floor is often the writer’s best friend.”

Since his death on May 12, William Zinsser dominates my thoughts. Reading his book On Writing Well transformed my writing in college. Later works continued to teach.

Zinsser dropped many great lines. This one rings true as I draft slice-of-life pieces: “be yourself, speak freely, and think small.”

It appeared in the essay “How to Write a Memoir” (The American Scholar, Spring 2006). Among the nuggets:

  • “Writers are the custodians of memory. . . .”
  • “When you write your own family history, don’t try to be a ‘writer.'”
  • “The strongest memoirs are those that preserve the unity of a remembered time and place.”
  • “. . . readers won’t connect with whining.”
  • “Remember that you are the protagonist in your own memoir, and the tour guide.”
  • “Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. . . . Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. . . . Then, one day, take all your memories out of their folder and spread them on the floor. . . . see what they tell you and what patterns emerge.”

In Writing about Your Life: A Journey into the Past (2004), Zinsser stated he did not find his voice until he wrote On Writing Well while in his fifties. This generous teacher and author remained current, embracing new forms. His popular blog, Zinsser on Friday, won a National Magazine Award in 2012—when he was 89.

To learn more about William Zinsser, visit his website. You’ll find him on saxophone, improvising with Arnold Roth on piano.

13 Comments

  1. donnaanddiablo

    A wonderful tribute, Catherine. I, too, revere Zinsser and feel like he gave me many good edicts to live by as a writer. My copy of “On Writing Well” is well-thumbed and much beloved. Two of my favorite quotes: “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” and “simplify, simplify.” 🙂

  2. Michele Walfred

    Sage advice worth putting into practice.We are tour guides on individual journies. Tell the stories, walk people through them.

  3. Dan Hise

    Thanks, Ekaterina. You’re an excellent curator of writing advice. And a damned fine example of the finished product.

  4. vanbytheriver

    “see what they tell you and what patterns emerge.” This has been a huge revelation to me as I commit to writing my stories. Thanks for a brief, but enlightening post. ☺ Van

    1. Catherine Hamrick

      I am so glad you found the post useful. I return to Zinsser’s advice periodically. It helps me, too.

      Zinsser taught highly successful classes, including memoir. He was honest about his own writing. He brought reality/honesty into the classroom.

      I am disappointed that more English teachers do not use Zinsser’s work, even if by class discussion. He presents an excellent model that freshmen respond to when they write a personal essay.

  5. Karina - Letters of Transit

    This is a great list of recommendations, I will definitely be picking up a few of them to help me on my journey towards being a better writer. Thank you so much for sharing, I was not familiar with any of these books and I am really looking forward to learning from them.

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