William Zinsser on writing family history

William Zinsser is is well-known for his writing, editing, teaching, and literary criticism. I keep his book On Writing Well within arm’s reach.

An article by Zinsser on how to write memoir came across my virtual transom recently. I found myself nodding in agreement with sentence after sentence. I couldn’t say it better, so instead I’ll pass on a few paragraphs I find thought-provoking.

In the opening paragraphs he lays out the reason ordinary peoples’ memoirs are valuable:

“Only when [our children] 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 all its accretions of anecdote and lore.”

In the article Zinsser describes how his elderly father wrote two family histories, and what he did with them:

“He wrote with a pencil on a yellow legal pad, never pausing—then or ever again—to rewrite. …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.”

Later in the article he evaluates his father’s act:

“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 that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative. It also allows you to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.”

Snaps, Mr. Zinsser. Snaps.

I’ve just discovered this advocate of good writing–and great humanity–blogs weekly at The American Scholar. You can bet I’ll be following him there.

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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2 Responses to William Zinsser on writing family history

  1. Pingback: William Zinsser on writing family history | True Stories Well Told | personal storytelling | Scoop.it

  2. Linda Thomas says:

    I’m so glad to have found your blog on Scoop.it! I’m signed up to receive your posts on e-mail.

    I have adored Zinsser for decades now. What a dear man, a delightful writing teacher!

    Linda Thomas


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