As promised, I want to share with you a few passages from William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well about writing family history and memoir this week. The book’s subtitle for its 30th anniversary is The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. And yet it’s such a moving and intimate read. I suppose that’s why I enjoyed reading it so much and love sharing it with you here.
Zinsser says that writers are “the custodians of memory” and that there are many ways to approach personal or family history—whether formal or informal, whether you interview members of your family or write only from your own perspective, it’s still “an important kind of writing. Memories often die with their owner, and time too often surprises us by running out.”
To Zinsser, one of the saddest things is when he hears people say “‘I wish I had asked my mother about that.’ Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather. As every parent knows, our children are not as fascinated by our fascinating lives as we are. Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and all its accretions of anecdote and lore.”
Since my father had two separate generations of children—my half brothers have children who are my age—I felt very early on that he grew up and had lived in a world very different from mine. He always had a story to tell almost everywhere we went together. We passed an old building in Bangkok that had been renovated into a bank, and he would tell me of a man he once knew who used to live there. I remember thinking, after college, that I wanted to interview him one day, maybe do a photo project with him with all the places he knew in Bangkok, or learn how to pick out antiques and ancient Thai ceramics—he was a collector—from him. Alas, procrastination got the better of me, and as Zinsser writes, “Time too often surprises us by running out.”
On the kind of writing we remember
“[R]eaders won’t connect with whining. Don’t use your memoir to air old grievances and to settle old scores; get rid of that anger somewhere else. That memoirs that we do remeber from the 1990s are the ones that were written with love and forgiveness, like Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and Pete Hamill’s The Drinking Life. Although the childhood they describe were painful, the writers are as hard on their younger selves as they are on their elders. We are not victims, they want us to know. We come from a tribe of fallible people and we have survived without resentment to get on with our lives. For them, writing a memoir became an act of healing.
“It can also be an act of healing for you. If you make an honest transaction with your own humanity and with the humanity of the people who crossed your life, no matter how much pain they caused you or you caused them, readers will connect with your journey.”
Significance, not Subject
“Remember: Your biggest stories will often have less to do with their subject than with their significance—not what you did in a cetain situation, but how that situation affected you and shaped the person you became.”
That’s it from Zinsser’s book. Another thing I want to share with you is the two articles about Amy Tan’s new book. The author has always been known for her novels—The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter. But she surprised herself, more than her fans and editor, by writing her first memoir, which has just came out. As I’ve mentioned before, I love reading about writing or why certain famous writers write, or what writing means to them. So both The New York Times story, “Amy Tan, The Reluctant Memoirist” and Poets & Writers interview, “Where the Past Begins: An Interview with Amy Tan” provide such a fascinating glimpse into her process of writing this book. I hope you’ll enjoy them.
Until next time.