Thursday, June 2, 2011

Excerpt: "How to Write a Memoir" by William Zinsser

I was in New York recently for a writers' conference and ran into somebody from my past—she was the books editor at Cosmo back when I ran the magazine's copy department. In the conversation that ensued, Betty mentioned her friend William Zinsser, whose book Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir I've been carrying around with me for months. I'm a big fan of his, so I asked Betty how she knew him, and she told me they're in a singing group together. I am so jealous. It turns out that Zinsser is a lover of old-timey songs, a subject he often addresses in his blog for The American Scholar (to read his post "Stardust Memories" click here). He's even written a book called Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs.

By pure coincidence, two members of the Hale Street Gang have been writing about music in their current memoirs, and it is not unusual for someone in the Monday group or the Tuesday group to begin humming a little tune and then somebody joins in and pretty soon we're all sitting around the table singing. I clearly remember one winter afternoon when Margaret Egerton was still with us and both she and John Jackson happened to mention the same song in the pieces they read aloud that day. It was "Love's Old Sweet Song" ("Just a song at twilight . . .").

So now, of course, I want to start a singing group where friends gather round the piano on Friday nights and sing old Beatles and Pete Seeger songs.

I am eternally indebted to Zinsser for helping me learn the memoir-writing process. Here's an excerpt from his book On Writing Well:
Most people embarking on a memoir are paralyzed by the size of the task. What to put in? What to leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story? The past looms over them in a thousand fragments, defying them to impose on it some kind of order. Because of that anxiety, many memoirs linger for years half written, or never get written at all.
What can be done?
You must make a series of reducing decisions. For example: in a family history, one big decision would be to write about only one branch of the family. Families are complex organisms, especially if you trace them back several generations. Decide to write about your mother's side of the family or your father's side, but not both. Return to the other one later and make it a separate project.
Remember that you are the protagonist in your own memoir, the tour guide. You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control. This means leaving out of your memoir many people who don't need to be there. Like siblings. (To continue reading, click here)

1 comment:

Linda said...

I wonder how we ever could make it in our writing lives without Zinsser? He's been my hero for so long... Bless his heart.

I thought he was publishing a new book on memoir this month, but I can't find it now. Maybe it's someone else.

Thanks for your inspiration today.