Zinsser on Friday

Detour Ahead

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By William Zinsser

August 13, 2010


I await the day when a Global Positioning System is developed for writers–a breed famously unsure of where they are and where they are trying to go. For a writer lost in the tangled wilderness of his narrative it would be comforting to just call Cheryl at GPS and ask, “Where the hell am I?”

CHERYL: You said you wanted to end with the scene where the grandmother forgives her children for pushing her down the stairs when she told them what was in the will. Do you still want to go there?

WRITER: Well, I’ve been doing some rewriting, and I think maybe it would be better to end with the scene where the family realizes they can’t afford hip replacement surgery for the dog.

CHERYL: Hold on . . . I’m recalculating.

I like to imagine what would happen if Cheryl ever got hooked up with Ian Frazier, a writer of high impudence. Frazier is the king of detours. When I read one of his long nonfiction pieces in The New Yorker, I often find myself deflected into territory wholly unlike what has gone before, and I think, “How did we get here?” I once asked Frazier about this digressive tendency. I was editing a book called Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, and he was one of nine authors who explain how they conceived and wrote their memoir. He had recently published Family, ostensibly a memoir about his Ohio parents, but before his journey ends he has trekked across vast regions of obscure early American history. This was Frazier’s explanation:

The artist Saul Steinberg once told me that I write fake boring books–books that you think would be boring, but then they’re not. Faux boring. I tried to make this book sneakily interesting. I’ve always been willing to go in some off-the-wall direction–to drop everything and just run with it, where other writers might think, “I can’t disrupt the fabric of my narrative.” Ideally, each veer will make the narrative less boring.

That tendency of mine is a direct result of bouncing off William Shawn when he was editor of The New Yorker and I was writing articles for him. It grew out of knowing what Shawn’s threshold of boredom was. I would see his comments in the margins of my articles saying, “This is neither funny nor interesting,” and the section came out. My objective in dealing with Shawn was to tease him into keeping a section like that–to get him to say, “Well, it’s neither funny nor interesting, but O.K.” I’ve often found, when people have read one of my pieces, they will refer to something that was at first glance immaterial to the article. That was the one thing that stayed with them. Your objective is to find something that corresponds with the reader–something he or she has an affinity for, or can understand. It’s a seduction. The reader thinks he knows what he wants, and if you can just tease him away from that he’ll often have a better time than he would have had going where he thought he wanted to go.

Warning! I don’t recommend Frazier’s method; too much writing is already in enough disarray. You’ll save yourself a heap of misery if you stick to the linear and the sequential, those twin pillars of good storytelling. But, hey, I also want you to live a little. Dare to treat yourself to an occasional crazy ride if an amusing idea pops into your head. Maybe it won’t be so crazy. You never know.

Write about things that are important to you, not about what you think readers will want to read. Readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. If it’s important to you it will be important to other people.


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


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