Zinsser: Eruditition of the Faux-Bore

william zinsser writer who stayed19

The artist Saul Steinberg once told me that I write fake boring books—books that you think would be boring, but then they’re not. Faux boring. I tried to make this book sneakily interesting. I’ve always been willing to go in some off-the-wall direction—to drop everything and just run with it, where other writers might think, “I can’t disrupt the fabric of my narrative.” Ideally, each veer will make the narrative less boring.

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The reason, I assume—and I don’t expect a Nobel Prize for this deduction—is that people now get their information mainly from random images on a screen and from random messages in their ears, and it no longer occurs to them that writing is linear and sequential; sentence B must follow sentence A. Every year student writing is a little more disheveled; I’m witnessing the slow death of logical thought. So is every English teacher in America.

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Try not to acquiesce too quickly in projects that you know aren’t right for who you are. Think about other financial solutions that will free you to focus on the primary task of becoming a writer. Give more thought to the longer trajectory of your life. Your most important work-in-progress is not the story you’re working on now. Your most important work-in-progress is you.

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Some of our most creative work gets done in downtime—waking from a nap, taking a walk, daydreaming in the shower. (Writers are particularly clean.) Downtime is when breakthrough ideas are delivered to us, unsummoned, when yesterday’s blockages somehow come unblocked. That’s because we treated ourselves to a little boredom and cleared our brains of the sludge of information. Try it.

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I still believe in the carefully written personal essay, a long-esteemed literary form.

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I’m glad to see 2010 depart because the newspapers will finally stop summarizing the year for me, wrapping it up in handy 10-packs. The 10 best books. The 10 best movies. The 10 best everything else. Now can we please get on with living our lives?

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Writers are one of nature’s most insecure species; they shouldn’t be in thrall to an industry so dysfunctional and discourteous. They should be writing what they want to write, not what their handlers tell them to write. I try to refocus my frazzled writers on the process of writing, not the product.

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It may seem perverse that I compare my writing to plumbing, an occupation not regarded as high-end. But to me all work is equally honorable, all crafts an astonishment when they are performed with skill and self-respect. Just as I go to work every day with my tools, which are words, the plumber arrives with his kit of wrenches and washers, and afterward the pipes have been so adroitly fitted together that they don’t leak. I don’t want any of my sentences to leak. The fact that someone can make water come out of a faucet on the 10th floor strikes me as a feat no less remarkable than the construction of a clear declarative sentence.

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… permission is a scarce commodity in this land of multiple freedoms. I’m also in the permission business. As a teacher and as a mentor I give people permission to be who they want to be, and sometimes I think: How did I get stuck with this job? Isn’t that what our schools are supposed to be doing? The answer, I’ve found, is that most Americans look back on their education as a permission-denying experience— a long trail of don’ts and can’ts and shouldn’ts.

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I’m really tired of the word postmodern. For 40 years it has been the pet plaything of critics who see a “postmodern sensibility” in every new cultural work. Its moment is long over, but I don’t remember anyone telling it to go away. I hereby make that suggestion. I doubt if I’m the only person who has never quite understood what postmodern means, or how long post is supposed to last; the word floats in a vast sea of postness. Seeking a definition, I looked it up on Wikipedia. It says: Postmodernism is a tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the problematization of objective truth and inherent suspicion towards global cultural narrative or meta-narrative. That doesn’t do it for me. Problematizationally, I have issues with it …

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As the poet Randall Jarrell once said, “Tomorrow morning some poet may, like Byron, wake up to find himself famous—for having written a novel, for having killed his wife; it will not be for having written a poem.