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"Living Is The Trick"

William Zinsser (1922-2015) was a writer best known for his classic invitation "On Writing Well", which has sold over a million and a half copies.
William Zinsser
Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut USA
May 12, 1988

The sportswriter Red Smith was one of my heroes. Not long before his own death he gave the eulogy at the funeral of another writer, and he said, “dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.” Living is the trick. That’s what we’re all given one chance to do well.

One reason I admire Red Smith was that he wrote about sports for 55 years, with elegance and humor, without ever succumbing to the pressure, which ruined many sportswriters, that he ought to be writing about something “serious.” Red Smith found in sportswriting exactly what he wanted to do and what he deeply loved doing. And because it was right for him he said more important things about American values than many writers who wrote about serious subjects–so seriously that nobody could read them.

Another story.

When I was teaching at Yale, the poet Allen Ginsberg came to talk to my students, and one of them asked him: “was there a point at which you consciously decided to become a poet?” And Ginsberg said: ‘It’s wasn’t quite a choice; it was a realization. I was 28 and I had a job as a market researcher. One day I told my psychiatrist that what I really wanted to do was to quit my job and just write poetry. And the psychiatrist said, “why not?” And I said, “Well, what would the American Psychoanalytic Association say?” And he said, “There’s no party line.” So I did. We’ll never know how bit a loss that was for the field of market research. But it was a big moment for American poetry.

There’s no party line.

Good advice. 

You can be your own party line. If living is the trick, what’s crucial for you is to do something that makes the best use of your own gifts and your own individuality. There’s only one you. Don’t ever let anyone persuade you that you’re somebody else.

My father was a businessman. His name was William Zinsser, and he had a business called William Zinsser & Company that had been founded by his grandfather, also named William Zinsser, who came to New York from Germany in 1849 with a formula for making shellac. He built a little house and a little factory way uptown at what is now 59th Street and Eleventh Avenue. I have an old photograph of those two buildings, all alone in an open field full of rocks that slopes down to the Hudson River. That business stayed there until 15 years ago–a 125 years. It’s very rare for a business to stay in the same family on the same block in mid-Manhattan for a century, and I can assure you that it builds a sense of family continuity. One of the most vivid memories of my boyhood is how much my father loved his business. He had a passion for quality; he hated anything second-rate.

Seeing how much he loved his work and how good he was at it, I learned very early what has been a guiding principle of my life: that what we want to do we will do well. The opposite, however, is also true: what we don’t want to do we won’t do well–and I had a different dream. I wanted to be a newspaperman.

Unfortunately, my father had three daughters before he had me. I was his only son. He named me William Zinsser and looked forward to the day when I’d join him in the business. (In those Dark Ages the idea that daughters could run a company just as well as sons, or better, was still 20 years off).

It was a ready-made career for me–lifelong security–and maybe I also owed it to my mother and my sisters to carry on that hundred-year-old family tradition. But when the time came to choose, I knew that that just wasn’t the right thing for me to do, and I went looking for a newspaper job, and got one with the New York Herald Tribune, and I loved it from the start.

Of course, that was a moment of great pain for my father–and also for me. But my father never tried to change my mind. He saw that I was happy, and he wished me well in my chosen work. That was by far the best gift I ever received, beyond price or value–partly, of course, because it was an outright gift of love and confidence, but mainly because it freed me from having to fulfill somebody else’s expectations, which were not the right ones for me.

The Herald Tribune at that time was the best written and best edited newspaper in America. The older editors on that paper were the people who gave me the values that I’ve tried to apply to my work ever since, whatever that work has been. They were custodians of the best. When they made us rewrite what we had written and rewritten, it wasn’t only for our own good; it was for the honorableness of the craft.

But the paper began to lose money, and the owners gradually cheapened their standards in an effort to get new readers (which they therefore couldn’t get), and suddenly it was no longer a paper that was fun to work for, because it was no longer the paper I had loved. So on that day I just quit. By then I was married and had a one-year-old daughter, and when I came home and told my wife that I had quit she said, “what are you going to do now?” which I thought was a fair question.

And I said, “I guess I’m a freelance writer.” And that’s what I was, for the next eleven years. It’s a life full of risk: the checks don’t arrive as often as the bills, or with any regularity. But those 11 years were the broadest kind of education; no other job could have exposed me to so many areas of knowledge.

Also: In those eleven years I never wrote anything that I didnt’ want to write. I’d like you to remember that. You don’t have to do unfulfilling work, or work that diminishes you. You don’t have to work for people you don’t respect. You’re bright enough to figure out how to do work that you do want to do, and how to work for people you do want to work for. 

Near the end of the ’60s my wife said she thought it might be interesting to live somewhere besides New York and see what that was like. Well, to suggest to a fourth-generation New Yorker that there’s life outside New York is heresy. But I began to discuss the idea with friends, and one of them said, “you know, change is a tonic.”

I didn’t know that.

I was afraid of change; I think most people are.

But I seized on the phrase “change is a tonic” and it gave me the energy to go ahead. I had always wanted to teach writing: to try to give back some of the things I had learned. So I started sending letters to colleges all over the country–big colleges, small colleges, colleges nobody had ever heard of, experimental colleges tha I actually went and visited; one was in a redwood forest in California and one seemed to be in a swamp in Florida–asking if they had some kind of place for me.

And they didn’t, because I was not an academic–I only had a BA degree, like the one you’ll have in about five minutes–and it was very discouraging. But finally one thing led to another. It always does. If you talk to enough people about your hopes and your dreams, if you poke down enough roads and keep believing in yourself, sooner or later a circle will connect. You make your own luck.

Well, one thing led to another, and one day I got a call from a professor at Yale who said he would take a chance and let me teach an experimental writing course for one term (by the way, that was almost two years after I had started sending all those letters). And on that slender thread we sold our apartment in New York and moved to New Haven, a city we had never seen before, and started a new life.

Yale was totally generous to me, though I was a layman from out of nowhere–a journalist, god forbid. I was allowed to initiate a nonfiction writing course, which the Yale English department later adopted, and I was also allowed to be master of one of Yale’s residential colleges. So those were rich years for me–years of both teaching and learning–because they were unlike anything I had done before.

Now the fact that Yale let me do all this is the reason I’m telling you the story. I didn’t fit any academic pattern. But finally, being different was not a handicap. Never be afraid to be different. Don’t assume that people you’d like to work for have defined their needs as narrowly as you think they have–that they know exactly who they want. What any good executive is looking for is general intelligence, breadth, originality, imagination, audacity, a sense of history, a sense of cultural context, a sense of wonder, a sense of humor, far more than he or she is looking for a precise fit.

America has more than enough college graduates every year who are willing to go through life being someone else’s precise fit. What we need are men and women who will dare to break the mold of tired thinking–who just won’t buy somebody saying, “we’ve always done it this way. This way is good enough.” 

Well, obviously it’s not good enough or the country wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in. I don’t have to tell you all the areas where this wonderful country is not living up to its best dreams: Poverty. Inequality. Injustice. Debt. Illiteracy. Health care. Day care. Homelessness. Pollution. Arms-spending that milks us of the money that should be going into life-affirming work. There’s no corner of American life that doesn’t need radically fresh thinking.

Don’t shape yourself to a dumb job; shape the job to your strengths and your curiosity and your ideals. I’ve told you this story of my life for whatever pieces of it you may have wanted to grab as it went by… If I had to sum up why my work has been interesting it’s because I changed the direction of my life every eight or nine years and never did–or continued to do–what was expected.

I didn’t go into the family business; I didn’t stay at the Herald Tribune; I didn’t stay in New York. And I didn’t stay at Yale. In 1979 I made a resume, like every Yale senior (they showed me how to do it–how to make it look nice), and went job-hunting in New York, and got a job with the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was still another new field for me, and in many ways those eight years were the most interesting years of all. So don’t become a prisoner of any plans and dreams except your own best plans and dreams.

Don’t assume that if you don’t do what some people seem to be insisting that you do, in this goal-obsessed and money-obsessed and security-obsessed nation, it’s the end of the world. It’s not the end of the world. As my experience with my father proves, something very nourishing can happen–a blessing, a form of grace. Be ready to be surprised by grace.

And be very wary of security as a goal. It may often look like life’s best prize. Usually it’s not….For you, I hope today will be the first of many separations that will mean the putting behind you of something you’ve done well and the beginning of something you’ll do just as well, or better. Keep separating yourself from any project that’s not up to your highest standards of what’s right for you–and for the broader community where you can affect the quality of life: your home, your town, your children’s schools, your state, your country, your world.

If living is the trick, live usefully; nothing in your life will be as satisfying as making a difference in somebody else’s life. Separate yourself from cynics and from peddlers of despair. Don’t let anyone tell you it won’t work. Men and women, women and men, of the Wesleyan Class of 1988:

There’s no party line.

You make your own luck.

Change is a tonic.

One thing leads to another.

Living is the trick.

Thank you.