At 90, William Zinsser is still coaching writers

05/17/2013 6:27 PM

05/17/2013 6:28 PM

The written word looms over William Zinsser. The many hundreds of books in his Upper East Side apartment stand at attention, as if awaiting instruction from this slight man in a baseball cap and sunglasses who, for a half-century, has coached others on how to write.

In newsrooms, publishing houses and wherever the labor centers on honing sentences and paragraphs, you are almost certain to find a classic guide to nonfiction writing called “On Writing Well,” by Zinsser. Sometimes all you have to say is: Hand me the Zinsser.

“Clutter is the disease of American writing,” he declared in a passage that haunts anyone daring to write about Zinsser. “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

The book, published in 1976, grew out of a writing course Zinsser taught at Yale University. He is still teaching at 90, holding one-on-one sessions for accomplished and aspiring writers at a round wooden table close to those bookshelves. The only difference is he can no longer see.

So he listens. Sitting with elbows propped and hands clenched, and with the sunglasses and cap protecting eyes damaged by glaucoma, he listens as students read their drafts and fret over narrative.

“People read with their ears,” Zinsser says, “whether they know it or not.”

Sitting at his table is Gretchen Dykstra, a woman of vast experience as a teacher and public servant. She is trying to write a book about a colorful grandfather of hers who traveled the Upper Midwest early in the last century, collecting songs of the vanishing lumber camps.

She reads a few passages to Zinsser, whose smiling grimace, as one former student has put it, can suggest fondness for a person whose writing is causing him pain.

“It reads like a textbook,” he tells her. “This is not solved overnight.”

He suggests Dykstra write a personal narrative that couples her grandfather’s travels with her own.

She pushes back, protesting that her intention has not been to write a memoir.

Zinsser is dismissive. “Don’t worry about labels,” he says. “We’ll figure out what it is after you’ve written it.”

Lunchtime arrives. A sandwich is the only payment Zinsser accepts. He finds sandwiches easier to eat these days.

“I’ve got ham and cheese, turkey and cranberry, and roast beef,” Dykstra says. “You get first choice.”

Ham and cheese it is. Zinsser eats in small bites while he explains how imagination provides the lights and colors in a darkened world. “Much that I no longer see,” he says, “I don’t have to see.”

Teacher, mentor, coach

This may be because Zinsser has seen so much. He grew up on the north shore of Long Island, graduated from Princeton, served in the Army during World War II and embarked upon a life of constant reinvention.

He worked as a feature writer and film critic for New York Herald Tribune; wrote 18 books on myriad subjects; taught nonfiction writing at Yale; worked as a senior editor at the Book-of-the-Month Club; moonlighted as a jazz pianist; and, while in his late 80s, wrote a blog on the arts for The American Scholar that won a National Magazine Award for digital commentary. For many years he maintained an office, where he wrote, coached and counseled.

A little more than a year ago his many friends and former students received a written invitation from Zinsser “to attend the next stage of my life.”

He explained that his old enemy, glaucoma, had caused a “further rapid decline in my already hazy vision,” forcing him to close his office and end his nearly 70-year career as a writer. He was now making himself available as a teacher, mentor and coach from the apartment he shares with his wife of 59 years, Caroline, 82, an educator, historian and his partner, he says, in all things.

To be more specific, he would be available “for help with writing problems and stalled editorial projects and memoirs and family history; for singalongs and piano lessons and vocal coaching; for readings and salons and whatever pastimes you may devise that will keep both of us interested and amused.

“I’m eager to hear from you. No project too weird.”

Old friends and students have come, to read aloud a work in progress, or rail against their muses, or just visit.

Among his visitors is one of his former students at Yale, the writer Mark Singer of The New Yorker, who has been sorting out a family story based in Oklahoma. At Zinsser’s suggestion, Singer recorded their conversations while the teacher drew out the student with questions about his family background.

“He’s remarkably inventive and creative,” Singer says. “And he wants to be in a pedagogical role whenever he can.”

Zinsser agrees. People come to him in stages of typed-out paralysis, stalled, uncertain whether they have written too much or too little. He tries to help them organize their thoughts by condensing, reducing – learning what not to include.

“By talking to them, by finding out who they are, I bring out their own personality,” he says. “And ease their mind, for God’s sake.”

Yet he sees

This is what Dykstra seeks as she sits at the round wooden table, writing down in a legal pad the things said by a nonagenarian who cannot quite see her.

He also cannot quite see the volumes of Mailer, Melville, Joyce and Waugh behind him. Or the Walker Evans photograph on a shelf. Or the prints of American Impressionism to his right. Or, on a far wall, the Picasso clown his wife bought many years ago in Oberlin, Ohio. Or the aboriginal figure the Zinssers bought in Mali.

William Zinsser cannot see these things, yet he knows them so intimately that he does see them. Just as he thinks he sees, once again, a path for another student through a dark thicket of words.

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