Zinsser on Friday

An Interesting Life

By William Zinsser | October 15, 2010


Because of various academic ties our household receives a half-dozen alumni magazines, and I sometimes think I’ve been sent an architecture magazine by mistake. Proudly arrayed on their pages are photo layouts of construction sites–yellow cranes against the sky–and new buildings in strange shapes and materials. But where exactly are all those new facilities? Shed a tear for the alumnus or alumna trying to picture how these glamorous newcomers have been jimmied into a much-loved campus of tree-lined walks and Gothic stalwarts with names like Old North. Photographs of excavations are particularly troubling. Isn’t that big hole where Smedley Hall used to be?

Those thoughts were on my mind last week as I drove to Deerfield Academy, the boarding school in Massachusetts that I attended in the late 1930s, for a ceremony at which I was expected to “address” the entire student body and faculty. I hadn’t been back to Deerfield for quite a while, but I knew from its alumni magazine that a galaxy of new edifices had sprouted on the once-simple campus, where the buildings were mostly made of wood and had names like Old Dorm and New Dorm. Would the place still feel familiar?

In 1902 a young man named Frank L. Boyden, just out of Amherst, accepted a job that only a graduate desperate for employment might have taken: running an almost-defunct boys’ academy in the historic village of Old Deerfield. The school had so few boys that the new headmaster had to play on the football team and the baseball team. By the time I arrived, in 1936, Frank Boyden’s school was becoming recognized as one of the best in the country, and when he retired in 1968, his place in American education secure, he had been headmaster for 66 years.

Nobody visiting the school would have suspected that he was the person in charge. He was an unusually small man, with a plain face, slicked-down black hair, and metal-rimmed glasses, and his walk was a kind of amble. He was first of all a Yankee, with a dry wit, not first of all a headmaster.

One of his deft solutions comes back to me today. Probably it’s safe to assume that Frank Boyden didn’t approve of boys smoking. But in the geography of his life he was seldom out of sight of a Connecticut River tobacco barn; he knew that the leaf is an insistent nag. If a Deerfield boy absolutely had to smoke, a place would be found for him. That designated place was hilariously inconvenient. Known as “the bank,” it was a crude wooden bench at the top of an embankment that sloped down to the Deerfield River, beyond the last playing field, several hundred yards from the dining hall. Yet after every meal a small band of smokers could be seen heading out across the steppes, whatever the weather, their shoulders hunched against the winter winds. Even from a distance they looked like losers and outcasts.

But those words weren’t in Frank Boyden’s vocabulary. He knew that every adolescent boy is a loser and an outcast–socially or emotionally or scholastically or athletically. His school enabled us to be comfortable with our limitations and confident in our strengths. He gave me–a boy late to grow in many respects–four happy years and a solid education that has anchored me ever since.

Now it was 2010 and I was being shown around a campus that was in my bones but different in its vistas–and considerably bigger. The occasion was an annual event recognizing a Deerfield alumnus for “lifetime achievement,” its intended purpose being to make Deerfield students “eager to think” broadly about possible life paths. From a lectern in a state-of-the-art auditorium I watched 600 students and teachers file in. As Frank Boyden would have wanted, they were “orderly.” Here are some of the things I told them:

I came to Deerfield as a freshman in 1936, which means–as all you guys with high test scores have already figured out–that I’m well into my 80s. And you are in your teens. Quite a gap. So I wondered how I could throw some kind of rope ladder across that vast chasm separating your generation and mine. But then the obvious answer came to me: we are all on the same journey. Whatever our age, whatever century we were born in, we are trying to have an interesting life.

Most people don’t really give much thought to how to have–and continue to have–an interesting life. They’re too busy being busy. Or they don’t think they can do anything about it–life is a product, shaped by other people’s decisions. It’s not. All of you in this auditorium can shape and continue to reshape your life, far more than you imagine.

I once wrote a book called American Places, a pilgrimage to 16 iconic sites. Some were famous destinations, like Mount Rushmore and Niagara Falls and the Alamo. Others were smaller places that embodied a powerful idea about American ideals and aspirations, like Kitty Hawk, the barren beach where the Wright Brothers invented flight, and Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain invented the myth of an idyllic Mississippi River childhood. I had never visited a single one of those 16 sites; I was an American history dunce.

So I decided to make that the next step in my continuing education–to learn about those places by writing about them. It was an exhilarating two years. All the things I learned were things I had never thought about before.

Many years later a student asked me one of those questions that get put to “authors.” It was something like: “When you wrote American Places did you conceive it as a series of discrete entities? Or was it rather an over-arching vision?” You know the kind of question it was. And I thought, give me a break! Finally I said, “You know, I’m just trying to have an interesting life.” There was a gasp in the classroom, as if to say, “What kind of answer is that?” But it was probably the best answer I ever gave. I don’t think of my life as a product; it’s a continuing process.

You probably assume that my life followed a tidy blueprint to the pot of gold–success!–at the end of the rainbow. What actually happened was that I changed the expected direction of my life six times, always moving into new territory when the work ceased to be interesting . . . . In 1993 I described those successive uprootings in a commencement talk at Wesleyan University; my message to the graduating seniors was: “Change is a tonic.” Afterward three professors in cap and gown came up to me, and one of them said, “That does it! I’m getting out of this dead-ass job.” Wesleyan later sent my talk to all its alumni, and I still hear from some of them. They want to tell me about career changes they made that reinvigorated their lives in ways they never dared to imagine.

When I went to Deerfield it was an all-boys’ school–obviously a cruel deprivation. Today, as I look out at so many lively feminine faces, I want to be sure you remember that the interesting life is no less a bright balloon for you to catch and run with. As a writing teacher I’m struck by how unconfident American women still are, how doubtful of the validity of the story they want to tell. Don’t do that to yourself. You don’t need permission to believe in your life narrative.

Much of what I know I’ve learned by asking questions. My conversational style is inquisitorial. I want to know people’s names, and where they grew up, and where their family came from. Small stuff, but often amazing in its emotional wallop. I don’t want to text people if I can call them and hear their voice. I don’t want to hear their voice on the phone if I can meet them and see their eyes. I don’t want to walk around New York talking on a cell phone to someone who is somewhere else; I would miss too much. I would miss seeing and hearing–and overhearing–the things that give me an interesting life. I want to be alive in the moment that I’ve been given to be alive in.

My biggest concern for your generation is that you will let all the new technologies suck you into deeper isolation–and thereby drain you of your humanity. Last week Google announced a new feature called Google Instant, which, it claims, will find what you’re looking for when you’ve only typed one or two letters. “This option,” Google explained, “saves the searcher two to five seconds per search.”

Please don’t divide your life into seconds. Life is people–men and women and children going about the business of being people. Give every encounter as much time as it needs, and give it your undivided attention. Enjoy the process of living interestingly. Make that your lifetime achievement.

For the full text of this talk, go to http://www.deerfield.edu/about/585/heritageawardrecipients.

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