Zinsser on Friday



By William Zinsser

January 14, 2011


I’m struck by how many people chastise me for not using email. It’s as if I have violated the order of the universe. My decision doesn’t seem strange to me. It’s the result of certain choices I’ve made about how I want to live my life. I meet a lot of people who are being driven crazy by their dogs, but I don’t say, “Why do you have those stupid dogs?” They like being driven crazy by their dogs. It’s a life choice.

I don’t have email because I don’t need it in my work and I don’t want to be the captive of its daily clutter. I don’t need group emails from organizations I belong to. I don’t want to be sent jokes, good or bad, or recipes, or family vacation photographs, or solemn articles that the senders think would be my intellectual salvation, or books in progress by writers who want me to edit their work or find them an agent. I’m free! And it feels terrific.

My rebukers come in two categories. “Oh, you’re one of those!” the first group says, visibly irked that I can’t give them an email address. Others ask me how I can be such a Luddite. They think it’s their moral obligation to scold me into the modern age. I’ll admit that I’m a selective Luddite. I find much of the old technology easier to use than the new technology. Can anyone open a plastic-sealed package without power tools?

But I welcome any scientific advance that makes sense for me. Luddites don’t write blogs. How can I not love a technology that gives me an on-line column every week to replace the readership I had in the now-dying world of print journalism. Yet that technology hasn’t altered my lifelong intentions. I still believe in the carefully written personal essay, a long-esteemed literary form.

My other rebukers–a larger category–tell me how much I’m inconveniencing them. “You put me to a lot of trouble,” one said. “I wanted to invite you to a book party, but you don’t have email.” That didn’t strike me as a sequitur; I’m easily found in the Manhattan telephone directory. My friend was e-inviting his party list and didn’t want to pick up the phone. Another friend said she wanted to send me something, but I didn’t have email. Her tone suggested that I had entered a Trappist monastery.

“Put it in the mail,” I told her. The mail! I could almost hear the neurons in her brain processing the successive hardships of finding an envelope, a stamp, and a mailbox. “Oh, all right,” she said, much aggrieved. “I’ll send it by snail mail.”

That’s a term I really dislike. Snail mail is the United States Postal Service, a venerable organization of hardworking men and women who bring us our checks and bills and other clerical essentials, our magazines, our catalogues, and one of life’s purest gifts–a personal letter.

Last week I received a letter that I wouldn’t trade for a bushel of emails. It came from a woman I hadn’t thought of since 1976. At that time I was master of Branford College at Yale, and Sara de Beer was one of its 400 students. But I still remembered her because she had an intense scholarly interest. She was in love with the idea of storytelling as an academic form, and we worked together to get a course established.

“I want you to know how grateful I am,” she wrote in her letter last week, 35 years later. “You enthusiastically embraced my most absurd ideas and helped me bring them to fruition. Your encouragement and support continue to sustain me.” She said she had searched my Website for an email address–in vain–and had necessarily taken up pen and paper. Forced to use an envelope, she had also enclosed a flyer describing her current work–as a professional storyteller (“Sara can design a storytelling event to meet your needs”). She had remained true to her girlhood dream.

What I did for Sara de Beer was nothing out of the ordinary. It’s what teachers are put on earth to do: to help students grow into the people they are supposed to become. But most teachers never hear from their students again. I treated Sara’s letter like a sacred object and filed it with my papers, perhaps to be found by some future researcher with a dream of her own. If she had just sent me an email I don’t think I would have handled it so tenderly.

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

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