Home

Mr. Zinsser’s Wisdom

8 Comments

When I decided to “become a writer” a few years ago, the first person I accosted was my brother Biff, who —although he didn’t publish much after his big splash in the eighties — remained a writer until 2013, when he joined our bookish parents in the Great Library Upstairs. (He left boxfuls of scribblings when he died, including an entire book manuscript.)

Biff and I were on the phone one evening, and I was rattling off the titles of the twelve books I’d chosen from the approximately 24,813 tomes on writing available through Amazon, when he interrupted me.

“Don’t waste your money,” he said. “You only need one: William Zinsser, On Writing Well.” On further thought, he suggested I get a Strunk and White, too, because a real writer must have that iconic grammar volume on her shelf.

Otherwise, just Zinsser.

This conversation came back to me this week when I heard that Mr. Zinsser had also gone to the Great Library Upstairs. I imagine he is enjoying a glass of tawny port and a jolly good laugh with my brother right about now. They are wearing writerly tweed jackets with leather elbow patches.

William Zinsser Rest in Peace

William Zinsser
Rest in Peace

Here in the present, though, I’m pondering William Zinsser’s timeless wisdom. He was a prolific guy, though I’ve only read a small percentage of his work. He often wrote for the American Scholar, which I enjoy when I’m in the occasional tweedy, portish mood.

One of my favorite pieces appeared in the Scholar in the spring of 2006. With his usual direct style, Zinsser entitled it “How to Write a Memoir.” His recommendations? Be yourself, speak freely, and think small.

It strikes me that this is more than good writing advice: it is wise counsel for living a genuine, happy, and satisfying life.

  • Don’t try to be anything you are not — authenticity is a rare gift of great value. You are the only you.
  • Don’t worry about what others think — say what you need to say, say it just once, and say it kindly.
  • Avoid grandiosity — keep your britches right-sized. You’ll have more friends that way.

So here’s a toast to Mr. Zinsser. He will be missed for his wisdom, scholarly aptitude, and compelling storytelling, and also for his dry-as-tweed humor. I leave you with a few quotes:

  • “There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
  • “I think a sentence is a fine thing to put a preposition at the end of.”
  • “Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons.”
  • And my personal favorite: “Not every oak has to be gnarled.”

Further reading: The Writer Who Taught

Advertisements

Forces of Nature

2 Comments

“Every now and again take a good look at something not made with hands — a mountain, a star, the turn of a stream. There will come to you wisdom and patience and solace and, above all, the assurance that you are not alone in the world.”   Sidney Lovett

 

Of all the fierce energy that makes up the natural world — tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis — I believe that the greatest force of nature is her ability to heal our souls and bestow on us the gift of belonging. You belong — are there sweeter words?

Humans may have betrayed nature, scraped and beaten and chopped her until she is raw and bleeding, but she endures and she provides for us. We are a part of her.

I first discovered the divine company of nature among the evergreens, ferns, and moss of a New England forest. That’s where I met God. But here in my little corner of suburbia, if I take the time to pay attention to “something not made with hands,” I am reminded every day: I am not alone. I belong.

DSCN4921

The patterns, balance, and beauty of the natural world — the assurance that sweet, delicate, winsome spring flowers will overtake the icy, harsh, and deadly serious winter — these great forces of nature reassure my soul.

 

This post is in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: Forces of Nature

My First Protest: May 6th, 1970

8 Comments

I was scared, of course. We all were. Just a few days before, four kids had been shot dead and nine wounded by the National Guard on the campus of Kent State in Ohio, and nothing seemed safe anymore. Our nation and our family dinner tables were in complete chaos.

May 4th, 1970. Photo courtesy of Kent State

May 4th, 1970. Photo courtesy of Kent State

I had just turned fifteen and probably wasn’t in much danger of being shot on the steps of Kensington Junior High School, but my pulse was pounding and I felt sick as our group moved down the yellow-tiled hall. We were mostly the “good kids,” certainly not the type to walk out in the middle of a school day without permission.

But those pictures from Kent State haunted us — they looked like our older brothers and sisters. I remember wanting desperately to show solidarity with my big brother who was at college in Texas. I knew he was marching.

The Kent State students shot on May 4th had been protesting Nixon’s announcement that he was expanding the Vietnam war by sending troops into Cambodia. It was now May 6th, and we were joining thousands of college students boycotting classes in a nationwide strike to protest Kent State and the Cambodian invasion. More than 500 campuses had been shut down, including the entire university system of California.

Confronting Authority

It was lunchtime when about a dozen of us ninth graders moved uncertainly towards the big man in the black suit whose outstretched arms blocked the front doors. He looked like a buzzard with his sharp nose and cold eyes and long arms. We had not anticipated the principal’s presence when we planned our walkout.

One brave girl spoke up. “We’re leaving, Mr. Gaub. Please let us pass.”

Mr. Gaub cleared his throat but did not lower his arms.

“It is my duty to tell you that if you walk out this door, you will have an unexcused absence. This will go on your permanent record and could affect your grades.”

We stood just a few feet from him and he looked each of us in the eyes. “I know who you are; I know your names,” he said. He cleared his throat again. “And I’m proud of you.” He dropped his arms and we marched past him into the sunlight.

We milled around in the parking lot for a while chanting “Out Now” and feeling very grown up. Then we walked up to the 7-11 store for cherry cokes and red licorice. After all, we were just kids.

A "good kid" finding her voice

A “good kid” finding her voice

In memory of Stanley Eugene Gaub, February 8, 1925 – January 6, 2009. Thank you and rest in peace.

mr gaub

Pilgrimage Day Two: Tears in the Desert

4 Comments

If you’re prone tears as I am, you’ve got to expect that at some point on an eight-day spiritual pilgrimage in the desert, you’re going to dampen a few hankies. Especially when your one prayer for the pilgrimage is to open yourself to God. God is real and raw and authentic and takes no part in denial, false pride, or stiff upper lipping.

I see my emotions as part of who I am, gifts from God that help me understand what is going on in my soul and recognize areas in which I want to grow and heal. I used to stuff my emotions in a misguided effort to protect myself from pain, and then I tried simply hiding them so that I wouldn’t riffle anyone else’s pond. But now I’m a grown-up and allow myself to be fully me (mostly).

Mortification and Defeat

Nevertheless, I was mortified to find myself on the first full day of our pilgrimage, standing on a dusty trail in the middle of nowhere with ten virtual strangers, sobbing kindergarten tears onto a nearby shoulder. I knew none of these people and was pretty sure that none of them would want to know me after witnessing my wailing: “I’m so frustrated! I’m so tired of hurting!”

I had not been sure that I could make the hike, but thought I’d give it a try. Thrilled that I needed no cast on my recently fractured shoulder, I wanted to take full advantage of the beautiful surroundings at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. I’d taken care of myself and honored the limitations of my injured arm by skipping 7 a.m. body prayer yoga (always glad to have an excuse to smack the snooze button), and by resting after lunch, journaling and reading J. Brent Bill’s little Quaker book, Mind the Light.

Now I took a handful of Advil and responded to my father’s Texan voice in my head telling me to “Buck up! You can do this, you’re a Griffin.”

I laced up my hiking boots — a feat that would have been impossible just a week before — slung my daypack over my good arm, and headed to the trailhead to meet my fellow pilgrims. Our trip leader Tiffany had asked me to wear my arm brace for her own peace of mind and advised me to carry a walking stick for the steep trails.

I quickly fell behind the others, juggling my pack, stick, and clumsy brace. A sweet guy quoted some scripture about helping one another with our burdens and reached out to carry my pack. His kind gesture, coupled with my pain and the growing realization that I was already slowing everyone down, sapped my energy as surely as the altitude had sapped my breath.

When Tiffany said kindly, “I don’t think you should go on this hike,” I threw myself on her shoulder and moaned “I don’t either,” and the waterworks started.

I was face-to-face with my imperfection, my brokenness, my inability to do absolutely anything I put my mind to, and yes, my age (this trip being a sixtieth birthday present to myself). My familiar mantra, “I should be able to…” was crumbling like the red sandstone cliffs that surrounded us.

DSCN4789

Even rock cliffs crumble

Letting Go

That morning we had begun our main work of the pilgrimage, looking at the cycles of call — the phases and transitions in life — and reflecting on resistance and the need for release. What’s holding you back, and what do you need to release in order to move into the next calling in your life?

“What needs to break is often our competence,” warned our pilgrimage leader Marjory, clearly prophesying my afternoon breakdown. “Call often comes after suffering.” Moses had lost everything before he was “called” by a burning bush in the desert, and Jesus spent forty days in the desert suffering trials and temptations before he was ready for his earthly ministry.

The desert is a great place for suffering. It’s a harsh place, a place that reminds us of our mortality. Droughts, razor sharp foliage, whipping winds, and killing sun. One doesn’t look to the desert for mercy.

No mercy here

No mercy here

Now I headed back the way our group had come, my broken competence stowed in my daypack and my broken shoulder throbbing. I turned to watch the other scrambling up the rocky trail and felt humiliation and defeat.

Desert Mercies

After I’d walked a while, I sat down by a narrow creek and took my water bottle out of my pack. As I leaned my head back to drink, I noticed that the branches of the cottonwoods lining the creek were bursting with tiny buds, reaching fuzzy chartreuse fingers into the brilliant blue sky. I wiped the dusty red tears from my cheeks.

Two robins arrived, tilted their heads at me, decided I was safe, and then hopped into the creek and began to splash exuberantly, creating haloes of sparkling water in the air above them. The juxtaposition between their mood and mine made me laugh out loud.

DSCN4780 DSCN4785

DSCN4786

I pulled out my binoculars, camera, and notebook and settled in for an afternoon of desert mercies. As She so often does, God was speaking to me through the natural world. I realized that I was now feeling intense relief — relief that I did not have to prove anything to myself or to anyone else. I could just be, like the robins . . . Day two.

%d bloggers like this: