Mary J. Breen’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
Bill Zinsser, a prolific writer and a revered writing teacher, died last month on May 12; he was 92. He wrote newspaper and magazine articles on a remarkable number of topics, and he wrote books on jazz, travel, and baseball, but what he’s best known for are his eleven books about the craft of writing. His advice, especially in his bestseller On Writing Well, is so highly regarded that one tribute called him “The man who taught a nation to write well.”
Among the many glowing tributes to his skill as a writer and his generosity as a teacher are several mentions that, of late, Bill had begun to wear a baseball cap and sunglasses because of his advanced glaucoma. One even described him wearing his cap and dark glasses as he played his grand piano. The image brought both a tear and a smile, and it made me wonder if perhaps this was the cap we gave him.
I got in touch with Bill about six years ago because I wanted to thank him for his advice in On Writing Well, his handbook written in clear, strong, uncluttered prose that lays out just what it takes to write clear, strong, uncluttered prose. For several years, my job had been to get health workers to start producing brochures, pamphlets, instruction sheets, etc. that ordinary people could read, instead of the kind that only other health professionals could read. Problem was, they didn’t see anything wrong with what they were doing. They saw no reason not to write, “Avoid situations where bodily fluids are exchanged” instead of “Always use a condom.” It was an uphill battle at first: some claimed I was asking them to abandon their medical knowledge and training, and speak in undignified baby talk; others said writing well is simply too difficult; others said I was attacking the beauty of Shakespeare (I kid you not); others said readers just needed to try harder.
I had been a literacy teacher, so I was able to argue that a huge number of people don’t read well in English, and they deserve the same access to information as the well-educated. I also argued that everyone, regardless of their reading skills, likes clear information when they are sick or injured or worried. Who of us wants to have to plow through dense medical terminology to get the help we need? What I found much harder was showing these health writers exactly how to transform their dense technical writing into clear writing. That’s when I discovered On Writing Well. The principles that Bill advocated applied equally well to the task of making health documents readable: make the context clear, use everyday words and a friendly style, and, above all, remove the clutter. His book gave me wonderful examples of the good clear writing I was talking about, and it also gave me the practical guidelines and the support I needed to insist that there was no good excuse for not writing clearly and simply, regardless of the document’s purpose. Here also was the voice of authority; I could always say, “Well, Bill Zinsser says so.”
After several years of using Bill’s book and promoting it every chance I got, it occurred to me that I might take a bold step and tell him how useful I’d found it in my work. I could hear my mother’s voice telling me not to bother busy, important people, but I reasoned that he could just ignore my letter if I was intruding. I also wondered how much another note would mean to someone who’d received so many tributes and expressions of gratitude over the years. Before I could talk myself out of it, I took the plunge and wrote what I hoped was a simple, clear, uncluttered thank-you letter. And I’m very glad I did. Bill wrote right back, saying it pleased him to hear about this application of his work, and calling us “fellow pilgrims pursuing the grail of a clear declarative sentence.” Of course this was very nice, but it overlooked the fact that he was the guide that countless pilgrims like me were following.
So we began a series of very interesting conversations about writing and teaching, and through these, I got to see what a sweet, kind, funny, attentive, generous, and encouraging man he was. We wrote a couple times a year, not emails but letters on real paper in real envelopes, and we had several phone conversations. By this time, I had a new endeavour—teaching creative non-fiction for Continuing Ed courses, and memoir classes with seniors in retirement homes. He was always gracious, careful, astute, and helpful when I described some of the barriers I’d run into, like students who wanted to talk about everything but writing their memoirs. I remember how direct he was in reassuring me I had a right to “correct my elders,” something I’d been worrying about since many of my students at that time were older than I was, some by 20 to 30 years. Soon his books, Writing About Your Life and Inventing the Truth, became two more valuable guidebooks. Over and over he would tell me how important he thought memoir writing was, reminding me that “Writers are the custodians of memory,” reminding me that peoples’ stories—both large and small—need to be preserved. We also talked about how he conducted his classes at The New School, particularly comparing notes about my plan to do a memoir writing group with immigrants. He even called back wanting to know how it was going (not well), and we talked about the issue of whether deeply personal stories can or should only be told in one’s mother tongue. “I like to think of you and me,” he wrote, “wrestling with the same problems of clarity and warmth in our students, both north and south of the border.” And so did I.
We only met once; he invited me to come to his small, tidy office in mid-town Manhattan. Even though his eyesight was deteriorating rapidly, he still went there every day. He had just turned 89, and I remember that he pointed out to my partner Craig and me that now he had more years than the number of keys on his piano. We talked about lots of things: the train trip he’d recommended from Boston to NYC, kids and grandkids, and of course, writing projects. He inscribed one of his books for us, and we also talked about music as Bill was a jazz pianist and Craig is a jazz bassist. For our next visit, Bill said, Craig should bring along a bass so they could play together.
Then we gave him our gift. We had dithered about what we might bring, and had finally decided on something from a museum in our city, the Canadian Canoe Museum, a place dedicated to the significance of canoes to the peoples of Canada, past and present. We settled on a dark green ball cap with the museum’s logo: a little pictograph of eight people paddling a very large canoe, an image painted on a rock face in Northern Ontario centuries before. We thought he might be interested in the stories of these canoes, and even if he wasn’t, we knew he loved baseball, and perhaps he could wear it at his summer place. He accepted it, thanked us, and said that he’d never before owned a ball cap. We said how sorry we were that we hadn’t brought something he might have liked or used, but he stopped us, saying he knew it would come in handy at his gym, because of late he was finding their bright lights bothered his eyes.
Before we headed off for lunch at a favourite nearby restaurant, he put on his stylish Panama with a wide brim. It seems Bill had a thing about hats—elegant, classy hats—not ball caps. The sidewalks we had to travel on turned out to be noisy, dangerous obstacle courses. Workers were cleaning and repointing the brickwork on the outside of just about every floor of every building along the way, and the walkways were a maze of poles and pipes and adjoining bars. After our lunch, he had to return to his office for another meeting with another “stalemated writer” as he called people like us. I tried to insist we walk back with him, but he assured me that he’d be fine as he’d done it so often. After a hug and a gallant wave he headed off in in his jaunty, signature hat. I checked later; he made it back fine. In one of the last letters I had from him, he said we should have another visit, and added, “I will proudly wear any hat you bring me from the Canoe Museum.” We thought maybe we’d be able to get back to New York again next year, new hat in hand, as it were, but that wasn’t to be.
When he turned 90, his sight loss forced him to close his office. But he wasn’t finished working. He sent out a broad invitation encouraging people to reach him at his home because he wanted to keep helping those who wanted to write. The end of the invitation was a typical Bill Zinsser welcome: “I’m eager to hear from you. No project too weird.”
So, because of his curious, generous, open heart, I—and tens of thousands of others—will always be grateful to Bill. And, it makes me happy to think that perhaps he found a good use for that ball cap after all.