Is it possible to call someone you have never met a friend? Probably not. Yet when I heard this week about the death of William Zinsser, someone I had ‘known’ through his books, the exchange of a few letters, a handful of phone calls and messages on his blog, it felt as though I had lost a friend.
I first became aware of him in one of my ‘get your act together’ moments that included buying a copy of his best seller On Writing Well. It is simply the best book on the craft of writing ever published and I return to it time after time just to get me back on the right track.
Bill Zinsser was an outstanding teacher. He understood the teacher’s craft as completely as he knew that of the writer. Talking about how On Writing Well came about, he said: ‘I did a lot of thinking about how to help other people write warmly and well, and that process had nothing to do with handing down grand truths from an essayist’s perch. It had to do with leading by the hand, building confidence, finding the real person inside the bundle of anxiety.’ And even though Bill never bothered to have an email account, he kept up to date and each of the new editions of the book took into account the latest technology and quoted newer writers to make his point.
Impressed by On Writing Well, I quickly bought his other books and was delighted to find he was a keen sports fan, had been a movie reviewer, loved travel and was a devotee of the ‘great American songbook.’ I wrote him a fan letter and received a reply – all his letters were in his own hand until losing his sight in recent years – that showed genuine interest in what I had said.
He also told me of his new weekly blog and Zinsser on Friday became the way to kick-start every weekend. He had the same ability to charm, inform, entertain and stimulate as Alistair Cook used to have in his Letter from America. Through Bill I learned a lot more about writing, but also about musicians like Mary Cleere Haran and writers like Joseph Mitchell.
I loved the way he was curious about so many things and that he could not only tell people the theory of good writing, he could demonstrate it in his own work, even when writing about music, a subject that has to be among the hardest to put down in words. This from his masterpiece – and own favourite work – Mitchell & Ruff, the portrait of jazz musicians Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff:
‘Two black men were playing long stretches of music without resorting to any printed notes. Yet they obviously hadn’t memorized what they were playing; their music took unexpected turns, seemingly at the whim of the musicians, straying all over the keyboard and all over the landscape of Western tonality. Nevertheless there was order. Themes that had been abandoned came back in different clothes. If the key changed, as it did frequently, the two men were always in the same key. Often there was a playfulness between the two instruments and always there was rapport. But if the two players were exchanging any signals, the message was too quick for the untrained eye.’
I had arranged to pop in and see Bill the last time I was in New York but he was taken into hospital just before I arrived and so I never got to thank him in person. I will always be grateful that I found his work and connected with him, albeit briefly. It certainly felt like friendship.