Life and Work


“What is there in life if you do not work? There is only sensation, and there are only a few sensations–you cannot live on them. You can only live on work, by work, through work. How can you live with self-respect if you do not do things as well as lies in you?”

So said the opera diva Maria Callas in an interview that I clipped from the London Observer in 1970. Unlike Callas, I can’t hit a high C. But on the subject of work she and I are buddies. I’ve never defined myself as a writer, or, God forbid, an author. I’m a person–someone who goes to work every morning, like the plumber or the television repairman, and who goes home at the end of the day to think about other things. I can’t imagine not going to work as long as I can.

I’ve never been–perhaps to my shame–a citizen of writing. I don’t belong to writers’ organizations, or attend writers’ talks and panels, or lunch with publishing potentates. I don’t hang out with writers. Writers tend to be not as interesting as they think. What they mainly want to talk about is their own writing, and they also have a ton of grievances, their conversation quick to alight on the perfidy of publishers, the lassitude of editors and agents, and the myopia of critics who reviewed–or didn’t review–their last book.

I’m a lone craftsman, not unlike a potter or a cabinetmaker, shaping and reshaping my materials to create an object that pleases me–nobody else–and when it’s done I send it forth into the world. I don’t have an agent. I never show my writing to other writers; their agenda is not my agenda. For the objective judgment and emotional support that every writer needs I depend on the individual editors of my books and magazine articles–fellow craftsmen–and on a few trusted friends.

Many younger writers have taken me as a mentor, and when they come to New York they drop in for a checkup. Far too often I find them dispirited and professionally adrift, worn down by the glacial machinery of trying to get published: waiting for the phone call that doesn’t get returned and for the check that isn’t in the mail and for the decision on a manuscript that the publisher can’t find (“I’ve been traveling a lot lately and I guess it got put in the wrong pile”), revising their article yet again for yet another editor who knows a great angle to satisfy the “marketing people,” as did the two previous editors, now gone to other jobs without letting their authors know. Writers are one of nature’s most insecure species; they shouldn’t be in thrall to an industry so dysfunctional and discourteous. They should be writing what they want to write, not what their handlers tell them to write.

I try to refocus my frazzled writers on the process of writing, not the product. If the process is sound, the product will take care of itself. Recently I got a letter from a young woman writer who was back home in California after her annual visit. She said, “Your office is a sanctuary of craft amidst the hullabaloo of publishers, editors, and agents. You have no idea how liberating that is.”

It may seem perverse that I compare my writing to plumbing, an occupation not regarded as high-end. But to me all work is equally honorable, all crafts an astonishment when they are performed with skill and self-respect. Just as I go to work every day with my tools, which are words, the plumber arrives with his kit of wrenches and washers, and afterward the pipes have been so adroitly fitted together that they don’t leak. I don’t want any of my sentences to leak. The fact that someone can make water come out of a faucet on the 10th floor strikes me as a feat no less remarkable than the construction of a clear declarative sentence.

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William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


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