The God of Small Things

“Four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity.” – William Zinsser

A friend of mine is taking a writing class with William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well. I was surprised when she told me several of her classmates quit the class when Zinsser gently insisted on talking about the process of writing, rather than how one might get an agent; on writing well about the small details of life, rather than on big abstract ideas, and when he suggested that forgiveness was more important in a memoir than revenge. Apparently these folks did not want to hear that writing is hard work, that it is best to actually write the book before approaching an agent, and that if you are writing a memoir, don’t forget the humanity bit.

“Writing is out. Whining is in.” William Zinsser.

I wonder if Zinsser is saddened, as I am, by students who arrive in class wanting only to be told how to get their work published, and not terribly interested in how to become better writers, or how to find meaning and grace in the writer’s life.

“Intention is the writer’s soul.” William Zinsser

What is your intention as a writer? Is it to be famous and to have your books in the windows at Barnes and Noble, or is it to use writing as a way to find meaning in the world? In his book Writing Places, Zinsser says: ” I never let writing define my life; I want to be a person first and then a writer.” Especially now, when the publishing business is in such a muddle, this is an important concept to hear. If you are truly a writer, then it is the act of writing will sustain you, not the act of publishing, which is a completely different experience.

Writing is not therapy, I tell my students, although it can be healing. However, it will be neither if you insist on using your writing only as a vehicle for ramming your beliefs down the reader’s throat. Writing should not, in my opinion, be a tool for revenge. It should not be a pedestal from which one flaunts one’s victimization, which is often what happens in modern memoir; nor should it be a soapbox from which one shouts one’s theories.

The great southern writer Harry Crews once said:

“I don’t have the answers to the questions raised in my books. I’m not supposed to have them. If I had them I’d be writing tracts. I’d be writing things like Jehovah Witnesses hand out.They have the answers.I have no answers.And writers who have answers are usually very, very, very bad writers.No matter how well they use the language they are bad artists.An artist is outside that. In many ways the artist is apolitical and amoral, not immoral, amoral, outside it. Otherwise you’re writing tract fiction, tract literature, literature that has a point to make. Any fiction that has a point to make is bad; it’s going to be bad, because nobody knows what the fucking point is…”

Well, Harry’s pretty adamant there.But I agree with him.The worst books I’ve ever read were the ones that we trying to persuade me of something – and a lot of religious literature does just that, so be warned. Books that try to cram a philosophy or a theology or a political point of view down my throat are about as much fun to read as being force-fed is fun for the foie gras goose.Chekhov said that it is not the job of the writer to provide answers, but to properly frame the question.

Whether you are writing memoir, or trying to figure out what your novel is really all about, I think this advice from Zinsser is terrific:

As for how to actually organize your memoir, my final advice is, again, think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished product, the grand edifice you have vowed to construct. That will only make you anxious.

Here’s what I suggest.

Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long — three pages, five pages — but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.

Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir,” the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.

Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.

It may seem as though that advice is pertinent only to memoir writers, but if you apply the same theory and practice to your fiction writing, you’ll be amazed at what begins to happen. Themes will emerge, and you will be writing in evocative scenes, rather than static abstractions. Again, the trick is to think small, to observe the small things, the details, the sense impressions of our lives. If you relate those simply and faithfully, you will begin to be a better writer. As Chekhov said:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.



  1. lucky 8 on October 16, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Lauren, The quote from Zinsser was particularly helpful to me, given where I am now: " I never let writing define my life; I want to be a person first and then a writer." thank you for the insightful essay.

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