Passages from books in print by William Zinsser
Last week I got a letter from the man I once thought of as my broker, who now calls himself my investment counselor and would probably call himself my wealth management adviser if I had any “wealth” for him to manage. He was writing to tell me that Sandra, “the lead assistant assigned to your relationship, has decided to change careers and become a full-time mother of 10-month-old Brad.”
I didn’t even know I had a relationship with Sandra. She never mentioned it, probably because she already had a relationship—evidently quite a long one—with the father of 10-month-old Brad. But my investment counselor said he was “happy to announce” that Daniele had joined his office and would now be managing my relationship.
(This book can be bought at Paul Dry Books)
I decided to start my journey at Mount Rushmore, the “shrine of democracy” in the Black Hills of South Dakota that consists of gigantic heads of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt drilled out of a mountain. If I was looking for iconic places, nowhere had the nation’s icons been so baldly foisted on the nation—four pharaohs in the sky. Nor was there another monument that so baldly displayed the traits that got America cleared and settled and built: raw energy, brash confidence, love of size, crazy indivdualism. In such a conuntry an immigrant’s son could literally move montains.
Beyond all that, I had a personal appointment to keep: Mount Rushmore and I grew up together. The carving of the four Presidents ran through my entire boyhood like an alternating current, stopping for long periods when the money ran out. I never quite took it seriously; it was another one of those Depression-era oddities, like the Dionne quintuplets. Somewhere out West, starting in 1927, a sculptor whose very name said “mad scientist”—Gutzon Borglum!—was blasting one of God’s mountains and promising to bring forth four immense heads. Even when the project was broke he was often in the news, badgering Congress for more money or hounding current occupants of the White House to turn up for dedication ceremonies that P. T. Barnum would have admired for their showmanship—both Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt made the long trip—and when he died in early 1941, at the age of 74, exhausted, having brought the heads almost to completion, he had forced his vision on the country. That autumn the work finally ended, and so did a part of my life. I put away Mount Rushmore and my boyhood and my baseball card collection and went off to war. By the time I came home, Mount Rushmore had crossed over into the American iconography.
(This book can be bought at Paul Dry Books)
As a boy I taught myself to type because I wanted to grow up to be a newspaperman—ideally, on the New York Herald Tribune, the paper I loved for its humanity and humor. My typing aptitude caught the attention of Colonel Monro McCloskey, the commander of my army unit in World War II. The colonel had an elevated sense of personal glory, and I was a captive sergeant. He put me to work writing company histories that would exalt his feats of leadership. Once, near the Algerian town of Blida, just under the Atlas Mountains, a sirocco from the Sahara swirled through the tent where I was typing, pelting me with hot particles of sand that I sometimes think are still lodged in my scalp. The next winter, near the Italian town of Brindisi, the particles swirling through my tent were cold and felt very much like snow.
Those wartime stints at a typewriter prepared me for a life of writing in odd places, starting in 1946, when I came home and got a job on the Herald Tribune— my boyhood dream come true. The Trib building, at 230 West 41st Street, extended through the block to 40th Street, and the city room, which housed most of the editors, reporters, rewrite men, sportswriters and columnists, occupied almost the entire fourth floor.
Decades of use by people not known for fastidious habits had given the room a patina of grime. The desks were shoved against each other and were scarred with cigarette burns and mottled with the stains of coffee spilled from a thousand cardboard cups. The air was thick with smoke. In summer it was recirculated but not noticeably cooled by ancient fans with black electrical cables that dangled to the floor. There was no air-conditioning, but we would have scorned it anyway. We were newspapermen, conditioned to discomfort, reared on movies like The Front Page, in which gruff men wearing fedoras barked at each other in sentences that moved as fast as bullets. I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world.
Not everyone was as charmed by the environment. A copyreader named Mike Misselonghites, who sat along the rim of the horseshoe-shaped copy desk, arrived at his post a half-hour early every day. He would take off his coat and walk to the men’s room. There he soaked and wadded up an armful of paper towels. Then he brought them back to the copy desk and scrubbed his area of the desk. Then he scrubbed his telephone and its cord. Then he lifted his chair onto the desk and scrubbed its seat and back and legs, not resting until his workplace was free enough of dirt and bacteria for him to safely go to work.
One day in 1992 I got a call from the dean of the Earlham School of Religion, a division of Earlham College, a Quaker college in Indiana. He told me that his school was establishing a program called “The Ministry of Writing,” and he asked if I would give the keynote talk. I said I would like nothing better. Then I asked, “How did you know?” How did he know that I’ve always regarded my writing as a ministry? I had never told anyone; I thought that would be presumptuous. He said, “It’s all through your work.”
That puzzled me, because it’s not all through my work—not, at least, overtly. God turns up occasionally as a governing presence, and my sentences take some of their cadences and allusions from the King James Bible. But there’s no mention of religious worship or religious belief—the residue of all those Sunday mornings spent in Protestant churches singing the hymns, reciting the Psalms and listening to the Word.
Yet on second thought I saw that the dean had me pegged. As a writer I try to operate within a framework of Christian principles, and the words that are important to me are religious words: witness, pilgrimage, intention. I think of intention as the writer’s soul. Writers can write to affirm and to celebrate, or they can write to debunk and destroy; the choice is ours. Editors may ask us to do destructive work for some purpose of their own, but nobody can make us write what we don’t want to write. We get to keep intention.
I always write to affirm—or, if I start negatively, deploring some situation or trend that strikes me as injurious, my goal is to arrive at a constructive point. I choose to write about people whose values I respect and who do life-affirming work; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives. Much of my writing has taken the form of a pilgrimage: to sacred places that represent the best of America, to musicians and other artists who represent the best of their art.
My mother came from a long line of devout Maine and Connecticut Yankees, and she thought it was a Christian obligation to be cheerful, It is because of her that I am cursed with optimism. The belief that I can somehow will things to go right more often than they go wrong—or to be an agent of God’s intention for them to go right—has brought many adjectives down on my head, none of them flattering: naive, credulous, simple-minded. All true. I plead guilty to positive thinking.
(Da Capo Press)
The sound of the bat is the music of spring training. It runs like a fugue through the lives of the players and the fans, brightening the day with memories and associations. No other sound is quite like it. To speak of the “crack” of the bat doesn't catch the music—the high-pitched resonance, the suggestion of an echo. But it does catch the energy of the moment: a ball literally springing off wood. In the physics of baseball this is the central collision, the origin of life.
(The University of Pittsburgh Press)
One day in 1987 I received a letter from Joan Countyman, head of the mathematics department at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. She had heard about my interest in the educational movement called “writing across the curriculum.”
“For many years,” she said, “I’ve been asking my students to write about mathematics as they learned it, with predictably wonderful results. Writing frees them of the idea that math is a collection of right answers owned by the teacher —a body of knowledge that she will dispense in chunks and that they have to swallow and digest. That's how most non-mathematicians perceive it. But what makes mathematics really interesting is not the right answer but where it came from and where it leads.”
The letter grabbed my attention. Surely mathematics was a world of numbers. Could it also be penetrated with words? Could a person actually write sentences that would lead him or her through a mathematical problem and suggest further questions? It had never occurred to me that the teacher wasn’t the sole custodian of mathematical truth, and it certainly never occurred to my elementary school math teacher, E. Grant Spicer, a man who so cowed me with his ownership of the right answer that I’ve had math anxiety ever since. I still consider it a lucky month when I balance my checkbook, and the task is accompanied by a slight pounding in my chest that I would otherwise take to be a cardiac event.
Such self-pity would have been despised by Mr. Spicer. He was one of those people who have "a head for figures," instantly certain that twelve times nine is—well, whatever it is. Confronted with a student who couldn’t produce the right answer, he would begin to turn red, a man betrayed by his vascular system, his round face and bald head crimson with disbelief that such dim-wittedness was at large in the next generation.
I had been aware of Frank Loesser since the 1930s as a deft and witty lyricist for Hollywood songs: “Small Fry” and “Two Sleepy People” (Hoagy Carmichael), “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” (Arthur Schwartz), “Let’s Get Lost” (Jimmy McHugh). I also knew that during World War II he had begun to compose his own music, writing such patriotic hits as “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” and the tender “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year.” But I wasn’t prepared for the broad and inventive score of his first Broadway musical, Where’s Charley?, in 1948, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for Guys and Dolls two years later. It struck me then—and still does—as the best of all Broadway scores.
Born in New York in 1910, Loesser was a musically gifted addition to a Jewish family steeped in classical music; his older brother Arthur Loesser was a concert pianist. But Frank’s ambitions were not Arthurian; he refused to study music formally and instead began trying to write popular songs. He was also in love with language. and after dropping out of City College he supported himself with odd jobs such as editing a small suburban newspaper and writing radio scripts and vaudeville sketches.
In 1931 his aptitude for language landed him a contract as a lyricist in Hollywood. There he spent a decade writing the words for songs in more than 60 movies, including “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” huskily sung by Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, and “(I've Got Spurs That) Jingle, Jangle, Jingle.” The distinctive Loesser humor, which would bloom so extravagantly in Guys and Dolls, couldn’t help surfacing in songs like “I Get the Neck of the Chicken,” music by Jimmy McHugh, and “Then I Wrote the Minuet in G,” music by Ludwig von Beethoven. Even more useful to the studios was Loesser’s knack for the expedient solution, especially when the screenplay took a turn for the Polynesian. The grass-skirts genre gave him one of his biggest hits, “Moon of Manakoora,” sung by Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane. Some others were “The White Blossoms of Tah-ni,” from Aloma of the South Seas, “Moon Over Burma,” from Moon Over Burma, and “Pagan Lullaby,” from Beyond the Blue Horizon, later recycled for another movie as “Malay Lullaby,” probably sung against the same swaying palms.
But essentially it was ten years of servitude. Typical of the indentured status of the Hollywood songwriter in those Depression years was Loesser’s collaboration with the young composer Irving Actman, for Universal Pictures, from 1936 to 1938. Some of their movies were Postal Inspector, Flying Hostess and Swing That Cheer, and some of the songs they wrote were “Bang, the Bell Rang,” “Let’s Have Bluebirds,” “Hot Towel” and “Chasing You Around.” Universal paid them $200 a week and retained ownership of the copyrights and most of the proceeds, plus the right to “adapt, arrange, change, transpose, add to or subtract” from their songs. The contract also obliged Loesser and Actman to comport themselves “with due regard to public conventions and morals” and to refrain from “any act that will tend to degrade them in society or bring them into public hatred, contempt, scorn or ridicule.”
(This book can be bought at David R. Godine Publisher)
One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.” Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather. As every parent knows, our children are not as fascinated by our fascinating lives as we are. Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and its accretions of anecdote and lore. “What exactly were those stories my dad used to tell about coming to America?” “Where exactly was that farm in the Midwest where my mother grew up?”
Writers are the custodians of memory, and that’s what this chapter is about: how to leave some kind of record of your life and of the family you were born into. That record can take many shapes. It can be a formal memoir—a careful act of literary construction. It can be an informal family history, written to tell your children and your grandchildren about the family they were born into. It can be the oral history that you extract by tape recorder from a parent or a grandparent too old or too sick to do any writing. Or it can be anything else you want it to be: some hybrid mixture of history and reminiscence. Whatever it is, it’s an important kind of writing. Memories too often die with their owner, and time too often surprises us by running out.
My father, a businessman with no literary pretensions, wrote two family histories in his old age. It was the perfect task for a man with few gifts for self-amusement. Sitting in his favorite green leather armchair in an apartment high above Park Avenue, he wrote a history of his side of the family—the Zinssers and the Scharmanns—going back to 19th-century Germany. Then he wrote a history of the family shellac business on West 59th Street that his grandfather founded in 1849. He wrote with a pencil on a yellow legal pad, never pausing—then or ever again—to rewrite. He had no patience with any enterprise that obliged him to reexamine or slow down. On the golf course, walking toward his ball, he would assess the situation, pick a club out of the bag and swing at the ball as he approached it, hardly breaking stride.
When my father finished writing his histories he had them typed, mimeographed and bound in a plastic cover. He gave a copy, personally inscribed, to each of his three daughters, to their husbands, to me, to my wife, and to his 15 grandchildren, some of whom couldn’t yet read. I like the fact that they all got their own copy; it recognized each of them as an equal partner in the family saga. How many of those grandchildren spent any time with the histories I have no idea. But I’ll bet some of them did, and I like to think that those 15 copies are now squirreled away somewhere in their homes from Maine to California, waiting for the next generation.
What my father did strikes me as a model for a family history that doesn’t aspire to be anything more; the idea of having it published wouldn’t have occurred to him. There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.
Not being a writer, my father never worried about finding his “style." He just wrote the way he talked, and now, when I read his sentences, I hear his personality and his humor, his idioms and his usages, many of them an echo of his college years in the early 1900s. I also hear his honesty. He wasn’t sentimental about blood ties, and I smile at his terse appraisals of Uncle X, “a second-rater,” or Cousin Y, who “never amounted to much.”
Rock Island is the most depressed of the Quad Cities, and Grant School, which is almost entirely black, is at the edge of poverty. Budget cuts have eliminated the arts programs that once gave some margin to the school day, and visiting artists are no part of the pupils' lives. Now 500 boys and girls file into the gymnasium and see two visiting artists. They sit on the floor and look up expectantly.
Ruff establishes instant contact with them—making them laugh, telling them about the origins of jazz, explaining the structure of the blues, getting them involved in the music they are about to hear. When he and Mitchell start to play the kids are turned on as if by a switch. Their faces and bodies come alive; they strain forward to listen to Ruff's bass and to watch Mitchell's hands. Mitchell can feel the energy though he never looks up. He plays with total commitment. Whatever is happening on the gymnasium floor is connected to the small boy in Dunedin, Florida, who was Ivory Mitchell, Jr.
(This book can be bought at Paul Dry Books)