Zinsser on Friday

Once Around the Sun

By William Zinsser | April 29, 2011


This column completes one year of “Zinsser on Friday. Thank you for your company and for your trust.

My 52-week journey into unknown territory continues to teach me many things about writing that take me by surprise. I was a lifelong child of paper. I wrote articles on paper that got printed on paper in newspapers, magazines, and books. Paper was the writer’s oldest friend and always would be.

In January of 2010, The American Scholar bought an article of mine called “Writing English as a Second Language.” Over the years I had written many pieces for the Scholar. But this piece, I was told, would not be published in the magazine but only on its website. Aaarghh! I was being thrown into the black hole of electronic space and would never to be heard from again.

When my article was posted on the website, where it was linked to other sites, it got 16,000 hits. Yikes! There were real people out there! Real people reading real articles! On that day my umbilical cord to Mother Paper was snipped.

Like all magazine editors in the shrinking world of print, Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar, saw that his magazine would survive only if it developed a lively website that would attract new readers. But as a quarterly it only hatched new material four times a year. I proposed that I write a weekly blog to generate momentum, and Bob made that leap of faith. Actually I had never even seen a blog.

I only knew that blogs were casual creations—impromptu thoughts shot like arrows into the air. That didn’t interest me; I’m a slow and careful writer, and I didn’t want to lose my style. I wanted to see if the personal essay, an old and honorable form, could find a place amid the clutter and chaos of the Internet. The starting date was April 23, three months away. I dove into the water and wrote 15 columns, taking as my domain the arts and popular culture and the craft of writing. Every column was based on a favorite quotation.

So began a leisurely stroll through events and ideas in my past that I remembered with pleasure. Some columns described travels that had a literary connection: a climb to the mountaintop grave of Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa; a visit to the English travel writer Norman Lewis; a steamer voyage down the Irrawaddy River to the imagined “chunkin’” of paddles on Rudyard Kipling’s road to Mandalay. One column was based on a liberating comment by the scientist Richard Feynman; another on a liberating maxim by the jazz pianist Dwike Mitchell; another on a talk with Maya Lin about her new civil rights memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Several columns dealt with writing principles I had formed as a teacher. I thought it was enjoyable stuff. My blog was off and running.

Except that it wasn’t. Looking ahead to August, when new columns would be due, I saw that all I had done was to ransack my past. My column had no relation to what I was then doing and thinking. I needed to make the past useful to readers in 2010. I would have to be alive in the present moment.

One way of being alive is to be mindful of the changing seasons and their emotional associations. The crisp October air got me thinking about the football march as an American art form, the musical landscape of our fall afternoons. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Lincoln’s birthday got me thinking about their role in a culture of shifting values. Obituaries were also helpful. The death of Mitch Miller reminded me that his sing-alongs preserved the endangered American custom of group singing in summer camps and around a million campfires.

But those columns, while indisputably proving that I was alive and watching the calendar, were too soft as a steady diet. It wasn’t until October 29, six months out of the starting gate, in a column called “The Revenge of the Comic Novel,” that I found what I felt was a proper equation. It was prompted by the announcement that the Man Booker Prize, awarded since 1969 to a novel by an author in the British Commonwealth, had been won by a comic novel. I noted that the previous winners were “not a lighthearted lot” and had “left no acre of human misery untilled. … How did a comic novel sneak into that somber priesthood?”

I began by having a little fun—always one of my goals—with the annual delirium in the British press over who would or wouldn’t be “short-listed” for the Booker. Then I got down to business, pointing out that “every great comic work is serious in its intention.” I cited Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s World War II novel of lunacy in high places; Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s hilarious film about atomic confrontation; Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis’s lampoon of the academic pretensions of postwar England; and, especially, Evelyn Waugh’s 1933 comic novel Scoop, which was inspired by Mussolini’s mechanized invasion of feudal Abyssinia. “Re-reading Scoop today,” I said, “I have no trouble recognizing my own country’s latter-day military assaults on small Asian and Middle Eastern nations.” My column situated the Booker award in the context of current American foreign policy.

That was what I thought I should mainly be doing—using my past to comment on present events—and thereafter the newspapers delivered big and small cultural outrages with gratifying frequency. Among other atrocities, I wrote about meddling editors (“Working for Tina Brown”), mumbling British actors (“Prisoners of Britspeak”), and BlackBerry-toting multitaskers forever checking their tiny screen (“Bring Back Boredom!”).

My favorite column was “Stopping Steve Martin,” based on an evening in a New York auditorium when Martin was ordered to stop talking about art, his advertised subject. Listeners on a closed-circuit feed emailed the management that they wanted to hear about his life as a movie star. Even more shockingly, Martin complied.

It was my favorite column because it began with an allusion to a historic event that I thought would amuse my readers as much as it amused me. “Please imagine,” I wrote, “that it is May 29, 1913, and that you are attending the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris.” I noted that the audience was quick to register its hatred of Stravinsky’s dissonant harmonies. Brawls erupted throughout the hall, and the police were summoned.

“Now please imagine,” I wrote, “that a representative of the management walks down the aisle and tugs at the coattails of the conductor, Pierre Monteux. ‘Maestro, je regrette,’ he says, ‘the audience is not pleased with Monsieur Stravinsky’s music. They say it hurts their ears. We wish you to play something they will like better.’” Monteux stops the music, switches to a suite of Magyar peasant songs, and the audience returns to its seats.”

Of course Monteux didn’t lay down his baton. The band played on because the band always plays on. The actors keep acting and the dancers keep dancing; they finish the job they were hired to do. That’s the ancient contract between the ticket buyer and the performer, never broken. But Steve Martin broke it, and I felt betrayed.

The hardest column to write was the one that taught me the most. Next week I’ll explain which one it was.

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