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…

xxx
c

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.

11 comments

  1. Colleen:

    Thanks for this recommendation…in the past 8 or 9 months, I’ve been on a big “storytelling” kick. It started with reading “The Story Factor” and it continues now. I’d be interested in learning about any additional books on telling stories that you know about in the same vein. Zinsser’s book does look interesting.

  2. Tim – I’ll have to check out The Story Factor. Don’t have any other explicit storytelling books to recommend, but I’ll be checking out Zinsser’s other books on the subject—fortunately, he has several!

  3. Interesting article. Even more interesting was your Ignite piece (I had never seen it before & clicked through). I thought it was excellent, funny, and had a very, very, VERY (sorry, I’m not a writer) awesome message. :) Thanks for making me smile & giving me something to think about.

  4. Gah! My to-read list is bursting at the seams and you are a major culprit. So thank you. And your writing in this post is lovely, by the way. And, mmm, now I need to go re-read A Movable Feast, too.

  5. In Writing with Style, Trimble highly recommends Michael Crichton’s autobiography Travels. I started it (got side-tracked with the new addition to the family) and it is great. But he highly suggests that anyone who wants to become a writer reads it.

  6. I haven’t (yet) read Writing About Your Life, but the emphasis on story is dead-on. It’s a common mistake both for readers and wannabe writers of memoir to think that all a bio needs are the facts of an interesting life and then Bob’s your uncle. Uh, no. Unless you’re an encyclopedist (or, say, a responsible Wikipedia contributor), as soon as you start putting one word after another, moving sentences and paragraphs and whole chapters around, you’re shaping the reader’s understanding of the facts. You’re telling a story, not reciting bullet points.

    The same thing is true of travel essays, I think. After I’d read Bruce Chatwin’s work, and consequently gone into a writing funk for months, I was astonished to encounter this response among other (writing) readers: like, “Oh, Chatwin. You do know he made stuff up, don’t you?” After a while I just stopped mentioning him. (Maybe it all sprang from envy, but that’s hard to believe. Some of those who felt that way needed to envy no other writer.)

    Not that you expect memoirists to go the whatzisname route (the million-pieces guy whom Oprah promoted and then publicly demolished). You don’t expect the whole thing to be made up. But by gods, I’ll take a well-told damn-near-true memoir any day.

  7. Something of a side note, but your comments about growing into appreciating non-fiction really struck a chord with me. I’m an English Lit student, and still love the enormous diet of fiction (be it novel, short story, drama or poem in form) that that entails, but in my own reading, I find I’m more and more drawn to well-told tales of real life. The reason I bring this up is that I had literally finished the last word on a review of just such a book, The Age of Wonder, on my own blog, and then clicked over here to find this post! Your blog always seems to have a strange application to my own life (or should that be my life applies to your blog?).

  8. Thanks for the other suggestions, everyone.

    Jes – There’s a good portion of Zinsser’s book devoted to Russell Baker’s story of moving into memoir and his discover that *good* memoir involved “inventing the truth”: condensing events, collapsing timelines, merging characters, etc., in the interests of the story’s through line.

    His first draft of his first memoir, by his own admission, was almost unreadable for being completely true. Filled with facts (Baker was a journalist, after all) but snooze-burgers.

    If someone were to write a true autobio of me (and who would do that, but play along, if you will), it would read very differently than if (okay—WHEN) I finally start writing my memoirs.

    Even autobios are necessarily a little faulty, but they can be far more concerned with the factual truth than the Bigger Truth.

  9. I have always been a huge fan of biographies and am still amazed when I read a fascinating real life story. Two favorites:

    Vikram Seth’s Two Lives (2005), a memoir of the marriage of his great uncle and aunt.

    Isak Dinesen by Judith Thurman, St. Martin’s Press (September 1983)

    BTW – You’re my latest addiction and thank you for leading me to The Happiness Project and motivating me to come up with a word for the year. Mine is focalize.

  10. I haven’t read “Writing About Your Life” (yet!), but if you liked Zinsser, check out a couple of his other writing books. “On Writing Well” and “Writing to Learn” are both great resources. I only finished half of “On Writing Well” before I had to give it back to the library (or risk imminent doom), and it was incredibly useful. He has a knack for no frills advice that will make you think twice about every word you use.

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