Book Review: Writing Places

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Zinsser, William, Writing Places: the Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher, New York: Harper, 2009. 208p.

I recently discovered William Zinsser, who died last year at the age of 92. I picked up the audio copy of this book at the library, which is unusual for me as I’m not usually given to audio books. It made a good companion on the A6 this week, though, as I had to drive about 90 minutes back and forth to Vilseck two days for work. In its audiobook format, it is of the best quality, unabridged, and read by the author. This seems the way an audiobook should be. On four compact discs, it lasted around four hours.

The book is an autobiography of a man who spent his life writing and teaching about writing. It is organized around the physical places he did most of his writing, each era of his life denoted by the parking place of his typewriter or eventually his word processor.

Zinsser started, professionally, as a newspaper man. He worked at the New York Herald Tribune for the first 13 years of his career after serving the Army in North Africa and Italy in World War II. After freelancing for about a decade, he began to feel the desire to teach about nonfiction writing. Having only a bachelor of arts, he knew it might not be easy.

After casting his idea far and wide to smaller and newer institutions, he was given his chance at a place neither small nor new: Yale University. There, he was able to teach and refine his teaching of writing. While at Yale, his wife Caroline suggested to him that he write a book about how to write. The following summer, On Writing Well was mid-wifed by his trusty Underwood typewriter. It became his best-selling work and went through many revisions and updates over the next thirty years.

On Writing Well, born out of his time at Yale, became a defining work as well. Its publication and eager reception by thousands led to invitations to teach in other places. Zinsser enjoyed helping people find their voice. He taught how to think clearly, and therefore to write clearly. He taught not only traditional undergraduates at Yale, but through the rest of his life he taught middle-aged women, laborers, and physicians, and even served as a writing tutor for ESL students.

Writing Places is well written. Zinsser was a man who practiced what he preached—clear, personal writing. He relates characters and details while staying focused on the book’s purpose of telling the story of his life as a writer and teacher of writing. Hearing him read his own work added to the intimacy of it. It also speaks well of his writing style that it sounded so natural as speech. The book’s tone and cadence were not much different than if he had been sitting in my passenger seat for two days. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys writing and writers.

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