Book review: Writing About Your Life

children sitting on the floor, listening to a story

For the first 24 or so years of my life, my literary drug of choice was the novel.

I liked stories, you see, making them up, having them read to me, hearing old ones of my grandfather's over and over again. (Maybe that's the secret behind the strength of the bonds that can happen between the very old and the very young who love each other: the comfort-need to tell over and over neatly intersects with the reassurance that repetition brings with it.)

All that changed when I met Kate O'Hair, my first art director at Young & Rubicam New York. Kate was from Detroit originally, but had already lived in San Francisco and beat me to New York City by a few years. She was that good kind of worldly, accomplished and accessible, that made learning about cognac, Ry Cooder and the Hitchcock canon fun. (Believe me, a pedant could fuck up even the Cooder.)

Kate made everything seem fun and interesting and worth learning about, and it was from Kate that I learned how much fun non-fiction in general, biographies in particular, could be. She got me started with Zelda and A Moveable Feast and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas*; somewhere between Growing Up, Remembering Denny and Shock Value, I was hooked. Because while fiction can be engrossing and illuminating in its own way, non-fiction stories of the people who came before us shine that light, connect the dots and inspire into the bargain.

Memoir gets a bad rap for a whole bookful of reasons. A story is only as good as the storyteller, for one, and not too many people know how to tell a good story anymore. It's a skill, like anything else, that requires a mix of instruction and immersion, and over a varying but always extended period of time, and who has that these days? Some of the skill lies in the mastery of nuts and bolts stuff, structure, grammar and tone, but a whole lot of the magical pixie dust happens with intent: what is the story trying to do? What is it there to illuminate? What are we supposed to see after engaging with it that we couldn't see before?

For as long as I've been at this game of writing, I'm really at the beginning of learning how to tell good stories, which require a whole different level of intention and restraint. My experience crafting the Ignite piece about my hospital-bed epiphany is a great example: some 20 hours went into telling that five-minute story, and most of the hours weren't about picking out good Flickr photos for my slides. It was telling and re-telling, pushing in and moving out, plucking this and condensing that. It was biting into the bits of every thing that happened, worrying the thread of the story, until I found the five minutes' worth that would engage people's attention long enough to pass along a truth I couldn't even articulate at the outset.

This is what William Zinsser talks about in Writing About Your Life, his book devoted to teaching the generalities and particulars of teasing out the true stories of your life. The material he uses to instruct comes from his life and his experience, and his methodology of explication is brilliant: tell the story, then stop to explain how he told you the story, what he left in the story and what he took out of the story, and finally, why he told you the story. There are many fine snippets of Zinsser's stories in the book, his boyhood school, his world travels, the unusual points on his career trajectory, but they never feel like random bits. Rather, like some kind of gentle word magician, he weaves all of the stories into a unified whole whose point is not just how to tell stories, but why we might want to, why we need to.

There are not enough stars in the world to shower upon this book, and I'm not yet the kind of storyteller I must be to do it justice. If you want to tell any kind of story, on your blog, to save for your grandchildren, to make sense of your own past, buy this book immediately. It's what I plan to do as soon as I return this copy to the library. It is an instruction manual and an inspiration, and something I want by my side as I move through this next phase of my journey...


Image by Greene/Ellis via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

*Which turned out to be not an autobiography at all, but the best kind of sneaky auto/bio mashup, and the only thing of Gertrude Stein's I've been able to get through to date.

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.