A few summers ago I heard that the historian David McCullough would be giving the commencement address at a fine-arts college in a small Connecticut town, and, finding myself in the area, I went around to listen. McCullough is my role model for his honorable conduct as a writer, and on this occasion, as always, his values were solid.
The graduating class only had 25 young men and women, and it would have been easy for McCullough to give a standard commencement talk, exhorting the young to go forth with high hopes and high ideals and love of country. Of course he didn’t. The code of honor says: Do it right. There’s no free lunch. He had written a talk specifically for those newborn artists–a talk generously furnished with helpful admonitions by great artists of the past. The one that I wrote down was by the American painter Robert Henri: “You should paint like a man coming over the top of the hill singing.”
Amen. That’s also how you should write, sing, dance, draw, sculpt, act, play an instrument, take a photograph, design a building, live a life. I often think I’m the only teacher who talks about enjoyment as a crucial ingredient in writing. My students seem puzzled that I keep coming back to the subject, that I find so much amusement in what I see and hear and read every day. Life is serious! Writing is serious! Most writers take the act of writing with grim solemnity, fearful that they won’t be worthy of the gods of literature scowling down from Mount Parnassus. Or is it that they take themselves so seriously?
When I write I make a conscious effort to generate a sense of enjoyment–to convey to my readers that I found the events I’m describing more than ordinarily interesting, or unusual, or amusing, or emotional, or bizarre. Otherwise why bother to describe them? I also try to convey the idea that I was feeling great when I did my writing–which I almost never was; writing well is hard work. But readers have a right to believe that you were having a good time taking them on your chosen voyage.
So, please, lighten up, even when the story you’re telling is a dark one. The family that you remember as impossibly dysfunctional also had a lot funny stuff going on. Humor will get you out of some of life’s most painful corners, as Frank McCourt proved in Angela’s Ashes. I’ll get to that next week.
(Copyright 2010 by William K. Zinsser) www.williamzinsserwriter.com
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