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Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past

4.3 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1569243794
ISBN-10: 1569243794
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Zinsser, author of a classic guide for nonfiction authors, On Writing Well, looks back on his own years of professional writing, glossing selections from his past articles with advice for would-be memoirists. He begins with impressionistic sketches of his WWII experiences as a young army private in North Africa and Italy. Next he details his 13-year career at the New York Herald Tribune, where he wrote drama and movie features. He draws humorously and self-effacingly on his impromptu role as an extra for Woody Allen in Stardust Memories. With quietly witty insights into academic life, Zinsser charts years spent teaching at Yale while writing freelance for magazines such as Look. An account of his service as an editor at the Book-of-the-Month Club includes a history of that venerable institution. Finally Zinsser brings us up-to-date with his recent rebirth as a public pianist. To follow one's heart is Zinsser's most enduring piece of advice. In writing he recommends dwelling on "small, self-contained incidents" and making use of anecdotes and vivid memories. When discussing capturing places in print, he comments usefully on the changing trends of the travel genre (increased political correctness). Zinsser is warmly appreciative of other well-known memoirists and their organizational methods, admiring in particular Thoreau, Frank McCourt, Mary Karr and Annie Dillard. While his frank, affirmative and encouraging style will help anyone embarking on writing their own life story, his book will be especially useful to those of his own generation.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


This book, full of charm and ingenuity, cannot fail to delight and instruct the would-be writer of personal narrative. -- Vivian Gornick, author of The Situation and the Story

This is a book of pure pleasure.... The reader goes right inside the writing process. -- Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones

William Zinsser weaves his teaching narrative and his life in a wonderful way. You learn without knowing it. -- Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis

[William Zinsser's] deceptively simple style at first conceals but ultimately reveals a master craftsman...in the midst of his journey. -- Thomas Fleming, novelist and historian

Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press (March 10, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1569243794
  • ISBN-13: 978-1569243794
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #42,134 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William Zinsser, a writer, editor, and teacher, is a fourth-generation New Yorker, born in 1922. His 18 books, which range in subject from music to baseball to American travel, include several widely read books about writing.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, first published in 1976, has sold almost 1.5 million copies to three generations of writers, editors, journalists, teachers and students.

Writing to Learn which uses examples of good writing in science, medicine and technology to demonstrate that writing is a powerful component of learning in every subject.

Writing Places, a memoir recalling the enjoyment and gratitude the places where William Zinsser has done his writing and his teaching and the unusual people he encountered on that life journey.

Mr. Zinsser began his career in 1946 at the New York Herald Tribune, where he was a writer, editor, and critic. In 1959 he left to become a freelance writer and has since written regularly for leading magazines. From 1968 to 1972 he was a columnist for Life. During the 1970s he was at Yale, where, besides teaching nonfiction writing and humor writing, he was master of Branford College. In 1979 he returned to New York and was a senior editor at the Book-of-the-Month Club until 1987, when he went back to freelance writing. He teaches at the New School and at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is an adviser on writing to schools, colleges, and other organizations. He holds honorary degrees from Wesleyan University, Rollins College, and the University of Southern Indian and is a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library.

William Zinsser's other books include Mitchell & Ruff, a profile of jazz musicians Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff; American Places, a pilgrimage to 16 iconic American sites; Spring Training, about the spring training camp of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1988; and Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs; and he is the Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. A jazz pianist and songwriter, he wrote a musical revue, What's the Point, which was performed off Broadway in 2003.

Mr. Zinsser lives in his home town with his wife, the educator and historian Caroline Zinsser. They have two children, Amy Zinsser, a business executive, and John Zinsser, a painter and teacher.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past, William Zinsser uses the main technique of the master teacher: he demonstrates what he is trying to teach.

In the first of a series of mini-memoirs from his own life Zinsser tells the story of a phone message left on his answering machine from a woman who has a question about a paint primer that Zinsser's father had manufactured years before. In referring to an article he wrote about the message and the phone call that followed, the author shows how the work dealt with a number of themes: fathers and sons, family expectations, and filial duty, among others.

He tells us that he did not start out to write about these themes, but that they naturally evolved from the message and the phone conversation that followed. He then connects this to the two main premises of the book:

1. "Beware of deciding in advance how your memoir or family history will be organized and what it will say."

2. "Write about small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory."

Zinsser uses this technique throughout the book; he shares an incident from his past, and then emphasizes a particular point about memoir writing.

Besides the teaching aspects of the book, another strength is the writing maxims sprinkled throughout. Some examples:

"Go with what interests and amuses you. Trust the process, and the product will take care of itself."

"Too short is always better than too long."

"All writers are embarked on a quest of some kind, and you're entitled to go on yours."

"Look for the human connection as you make your journey. Connect us to the people who connected with you.
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Format: Paperback
There was criticism in the reviews here at Amazon from someone who thought this was "nothing but a book of introspection." (I couldn't disagree more.) Yet, in the same review she said, "You learn to write from imitating good writing." Well, there is no better way that I know of, to learn about memoir writing than by reading a well-written memoir - with writing at its core! These essays from Zinsser form Exhibit A that well-written memoir is simply about telling your story with good, spare writing. He stresses that one must "get it down." That doesn't mean you must sit down and write your full-blown story, but write your story as the memories come - just get it down; no need to think you must sit and write it ALL right away. These essays are beautifully written and are perfect examples of what quality memoir writing is all about. He teaches by showing, and Zinsser is a master at telling stories that work his own memories in while weaving a basic course in How To Write.

If you're interested in writing your story, whether in long-form or in essay form that captures the essence of a life, this book is a must-read.
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By A Customer on June 4, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I've always been a big fan of William Zinsser's books. As a professional biographer/memoirist, however, this one truly hits home. It's not only a perfect example of WHAT to do, but HOW to do it as well. For anyone aspiring to be a professional biographer, or if you're just interested in writing your own biography, all I can say is GET THIS BOOK! -- and get it NOW!
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Format: Paperback
It isn't the writing advice that strikes me most about William Zinsser's On Writing Well. No doubt the advice is sound and helpful--the most helpful that I've found. But, concerning the mechanics of good writing, Zinsser doesn't tell the student of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style much that's new. Instead, it's his presentation that sets the book apart. Zinsser teaches writing through narrative full of what he calls "warmth and humanity." That's what brings me back to On Writing Well again and again, and that's why I had to read Writing about Your Life.

Just as On Writing Well grew out of a course that Zinsser taught at Yale, so Writing about Your Life is the "distillation" of a course that he teaches at New School in New York. The course, called "People and Places," teaches men and women how to write about their lives, something that Zinsser believes is important:

"Writers are the custodians of memory, and memories have a way of dying with their owner. One of the saddest sentences I know is 'I wish I had asked my mother about that'."

According to the author, this book has two premises. The first is to "beware of `about'." Instead of starting with an outline or picture of the finished project, writers should focus on one story at a time, being open to where their memory leads them. The end result may be much different than the initial idea. The second premise is to "think small." "Be content to tell your small portion of a larger story. Too short is always better than too long." Writers should avoid listing every detail of their life. "An interesting life doesn't make an interesting memoir. Only small pieces of life make an interesting memoir."

This book is not for those who are impatient with example.
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Format: Paperback
>>>Because I wanted to take this book on my business trip the next day, I did not purchase this book from Amazon . However, I did look at the Amazon reviews prior to purchasing. Often I find that the 1-star or 2-star reviews can be the most helpful but, in the case of Writing About Your Life, those reviews are way off! As I spent a few minutes in the bookstore reading a few pages, I was immediately drawn in to Mr. Zinsser's narrative of his life.
>>>In a typical how-to book, you find a series of tips with three or four examples that relate just to that point. In Writing About Your Life, Mr. Zinsser interjects his tips as he progresses through the narrative of his experiences. The theme of his life and his recommendation for the most effective writing style is to write about what interests you. If a particular topic holds some interest to you, it will probably be of interest to others.
>>>This book takes a holistic approach to writing rather than a step-by-step blueprint for creating a written work. If you're looking for a book that doesn't require thinking, you will want to look elsewhere. However, if you are looking for model of what memoir writing should exemplify, you will enjoy and learn from this book.
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