Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On My Bookshelf: Your Life

"Don't rummage around in your past for 'important' events -- events you think are important enough to justify asking the rest of us to read about them. Write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you remember them, it's because they contain a larger truth that your readers will recognize in their own lives. Think small and you'll wind up finding the big themes . . . "

- William Zinsser, Writing About Your Life

Since we have been talking about cultivating a private world, writing in journals, and the value of small things, it seems like a good time to share with you my favorite book for personal narratives. It's a delightful read, even if you aren't interested in ever writing for anyone else. Once I picked up William Zinsser's Writing About Your Life, it became my gold standard for writing nonfiction. Not only does he teach his lessons with stories which are very accessible, he models them by writing about his own experiences. Along the way, he inspired me to live the fullest life I can, rather than simply doing what others expect and choosing safer, duller paths.

The book came to me at just the right time last February. I was casting about for my mission, searching for a sense of who I was as a writer. I found myself, as a soul with a story to tell, in Zinsser's stories. He drew me in, taught me, inspired me, and sent me forth with a clear vision of why I should share it with others. Something inside of me that has long doubted my own unique voice was nourished, mended, and restored.

" Who gave you permission to think that your story will interest the rest of us?

" Well, I give you permission. All writers are embarked on a quest of some kind, and you're entitled to go on yours. My purpose in this book is to give you the permission and the tools . . ."

That's exactly what he did for me.

Writing About Your Life could also be a great book to share with your high school students. I would recommend following it up with his book On Writing Well, which could serve as a textbook or reference book. Zinnser's instruction is ideal for students who like to write, write easily, and have a lot to say, but who lack discipline and shrink back from editing. He clearly shows why editing is essential. The years he spent teaching composition at Yale serve him well: he's a great instructor. He knows what to emphasize and what the student probably can figure out for himself. He doesn't waste the reader's time, but he doesn't pamper the young writer either. He is straightforward in his instruction, respectful in his tone, very honest, and highly practical in his advice and examples. But be forewarned: this is material for the mature student. By this, I don't mean that the subject matter is unsuitable for younger students, only that they might not connect with Zinsser personally until they are older. My estimation is that 10th or 11th grade is a great time to introduce your student to these books. I anticipate that some of you may eagerly try to use the book in the middle school years. Some of you may even write back to me that your elementary grade student loved it. In the homeschool community, we all know students who are the exception to the rule. Still, I wouldn't recommend it that soon. Here's why: any earlier than high school, and many of Zinsser's lessons would probably not have their full, intended impact. Your student may enjoy the stories, but will likely miss or not be able to fully apply the lessons from the book. Of course, you can always read the book first yourself, and then decide when to introduce it.

For now, I suggest that you find a copy of Writing About Your Life. Read it -- just for the joy of it. Then ask yourself what the book might be saying to you about your own life. Do you have a story to tell? Do you have a life that matters? We should not despise the day of small things, but go forward with boldness and share what we have been given.


Please note: I did not receive any compensation or free merchandise in exchange for my written review or my opinion about this book.

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