Zinsser on Friday

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By William Zinsser


 

The underestimated humorist Henry David Thoreau says in Walden that “the cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful.” The sentence is both wise and hilarious, giving us the pleasure of trying to picture that particular alignment of vehicle and animal.

Thoreau is musing on the compulsion of homeowners to decorate their homes with pretty objects before the house is finished or even financed. “When I consider how our houses are built and paid for, or not paid for,” he says, “and their internal economy managed and sustained, I wonder that the floor does not give way under the visitor while he is admiring the gewgaws upon the mantel-piece, and let him through into the cellar, to some honest though earthy foundation.” Was Thoreau the earliest observer of the American yen for “collectibles”?

As a teacher I often think of Thoreau’s dictum. Much of the trouble that writers get into is caused by cart-before-the-horse disease. Writers fixate on the successful final product, forgetting that they will only create that product if they start at the beginning and get the process right. I’ve found that most writers embarking on a memoir can already picture the jacket of the book. They can also see the narrative line of their story in its seamless chronology. Their only problem is how to find an agent and get the book published. They have thought of everything except how to write the book: all the prior decisions—matters of shape, content, tone, and attitude.

A typical prior decision is one that I made before starting to write my book American Places, a pilgrimage to 16 iconic tourist sites. My decision was to not interview any tourists at those sites. I wouldn’t ask 20 men and women gazing up at Mount Rushmore what they thought about the monument because I know that they would say “It’s incredible!” or “It’s awesome!” Those are subjective words, useless to me because they don’t contain any information.

Many things that are described in America today as incredible are in fact credible. TV sportscasters would be almost mute without it. “That double play was incredible!” they declare, or “It’s incredible that he struck him out with a slider!” Those feats are well within the borders of believability. What’s incredible is a final set at Wimbledon that’s won by 70-68. That’s maybe even a little awesome.

As a nonfiction writer you must anchor your work in specific detail and personal experience that’s useful to your readers. By not interviewing tourists I saved myself hours of taking notes I would never use. Instead I decided to interview the custodians of America’s sacred sites: park rangers, tour guides, curators, librarians, daughters of the Alamo, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Those men and women spend their days thinking about the place they have been hired to watch over—its values and its meanings—and what they told me gave my book an emotional content that I couldn’t have achieved by waxing eloquent myself. Beware of waxing.

Here are two of my favorites:

Like other aspiring artists of his generation, Gutzon Borglum (creator of Mount Rushmore) went to Paris in the 1890s to study. There he met Auguste Rodin, who became his mentor. It was Rodin, apparently, who taught Borglum how to animate the eyes in a sculptured head. At Mount Rushmore what appears to be a pupil in the eyes of the presidents is a protruding shaft of granite almost two feet long.

“In the early afternoon, when the sunlight throws the shadows into that socket,” one of the rangers, Fred Banks, told me, “you feel that the eyes of those four men are looking right at you, no matter where you move. They’re peering into your mind, wondering what you’re thinking, making you feel guilty: ‘Are you doing your part?’”

At Kitty Hawk, I asked Ann Childress, supervisor of the National Park Service site, what she most enjoys about working there. “The genius of the Wrights,” she said immediately. “They were everyday guys, barely out of high school in their education, and yet they did something extraordinary, in a very short time, with minimal funds. They succeeded wildly—they changed how we all live—and I think, ‘Could I be so inspired and work so diligently to create something of such magnitude?’”

William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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