Critical Evaluation

“It’s the last three chapters, ‘Checkpoints,”Draft No. 4’ and ‘Omission,’ that will be assigned and reassigned by grateful writing teachers. Perhaps the most generous passages in this generous book are in these final chapters: letters to the student of a fellow writing teacher, Anne Fadiman (whose yearly seminar at Yale was endowed by a former student in honor of Zinsser), and to Martha and Jenny, two of his four daughters, now both professional writers: ‘Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft…. As you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the eye and ear. Edit it again — top to bottom.’ As they progress through their own early careers, he gives them the pep talks he needs himself: ‘Just stay at it; perseverance will change things’; ‘To feel such doubt is a part of the picture — important and inescapable.’

‘This might be the greatest gift any writer can give another: the infinitely empathetic sense that it really will get easier the longer you stick with it. Or at least a little easier.”


First Excerpt

“Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day. ‘Dear Joel . . .’ This is just a random sample from letters written to former students in response to their howling cries as they suffer the masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine. ‘Dear Joel . . .’ This Joel will win huge awards and write countless books and a nationally syndicated column, but at the time of this letter he has just been finding out that to cross the electric fence from the actual world to the writing world requires at least as much invention as the writing itself. ‘Dear Joel: You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.

“You could be Joel, even if your name is Jenny. Or Julie, Jillian, Jim, Jane, Joe. You are working on a first draft and small wonder you’re unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you ‘just love to write,’ you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists? And unless you can identify what is not succeeding—unless you can see those dark clunky spots that are giving you such a low opinion of your prose as it develops—how are you going to be able to tone it up and make it work?”


Second Excerpt

“As I have noted in (among other places) the introduction to a book of excerpts called Outcroppings, a general question about any choice of subject is, Why choose that one over all other concurrent possibilities? Why does someone whose interest is to write about real people and real places choose certain people, certain places? For nonfiction projects, ideas are everywhere. They just go by in a ceaseless stream. Since you may take a month, or ten months, or several years to turn one idea into a piece of writing, what governs the choice? I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe twenty or thirty years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than ninety per cent.

“My father was a medical doctor who dealt with the injuries of Princeton University athletes. He also travelled the world as the chief physician of several United States Olympic teams. When I was very young, he spent summers as the physician at a boys’ camp in Vermont. It was called Keewaydin and was a classroom of the woods. It specialized in canoe trips and taught ecology in our modern sense when the word was still connoting the root-and-shoot relations of communal plants. Aged six to twenty, I grew up there, ending as a leader of those trips. I played basketball and tennis there, and on my high-school teams at home, with absolutely no idea that I was building the shells of future pieces of writing. I dreamed all year of the trips in the wild, not imagining, of course, that they would eventually lead to the Brooks Range, to the Yukon-Tanana suspect terrain, to the shiplike ridges of Nevada and the Laramide mountains of Wyoming, or that they would lead to the rapids of the Grand Canyon in the company of C over D.”