George F. Will: If today's students can't write, they haven't studied this master
WASHINGTON — When asked to explain the brisk pace of his novels, Elmore Leonard said, "I leave out the parts that people skip." You will not want to skip anything in William Zinsser's short essays written for the American Scholar magazine's website and now collected in "The Writer Who Stayed," a book that begins with him wondering why "every year student writing is a little more disheveled."
One answer is that too few have read Zinsser's earlier book "On Writing Well." His answer is: "People now get their information mainly from random images on a screen and from random messages in their ears, and it no longer occurs to them that writing is linear and sequential, sentence B must follow sentence A."
Tooting his own trumpet is not the style of this self-effacing and decorous WASP, who never leaves his Manhattan apartment or boards a plane or train without a jacket (J. Press, of course) and tie. Others, however, who cherish the craft of writing should toot it for him, lest young writers miss exposure to lapidary sentences such as: "I doubt if I'm the only person who has never quite understood what postmodern means, or how long post is supposed to last; the word floats in a vast sea of postness."
Style reflects sensibility, and Zinsser's style of clarity and economy derives from a sensibility that recoils from blurry words that carry deplorable thinking the way mosquitoes carry malaria. When his broker tells him a new person will be the "assistant assigned to your relationship," Zinsser wonders whether he has relationships with his barber, and with Maria at the coffee shop. "Cole Porter," he notes, "didn't write, 'let's do it, let's have a relationship.'" And nobody, nowadays, is too young to have issues:
"Toddlers have sandbox issues. Issues are what used to be called the routine hills and bumps of getting from morning to night. They have been around a long time; Job had issues. By calling them issues we wrap ourselves in the palliative language of therapy. We no longer phone or visit friends who are in trouble; we reach out to them. That way we can find closure."
Then there is sharing, "the word I most loathe in the feel-good lexicon." Beginning in the 1970s, "share" crept on little lizard feet into conversations, a signal that the speaker is about to tell you some personal matter about which he should remain reticent. Now, Zinsser says, "share" is a synonym for "tell": "'Did Rick share with you that we're coming for dinner tonight?' He did. He told me."
"Writing," Zinsser says, "is learned by imitation; we all need models." This columnist has had two, columnist Murray Kempton and novelist P.G. Wodehouse.
Kempton's 75-word sentence about President Eisenhower's 1956 campaign visit to Florida is probably too labyrinthine to be navigated by brains whose circuitry has been shaped by 140-character tweets: "In Miami, he had walked carefully by the harsher realities, speaking some 20 feet from an airport drinking fountain labeled 'Colored' and saying that the condition it represented was more amenable to solution by the hearts of men than by laws, and complimenting Florida as 'typical today of what is best in America,' a verdict which might seem to some contingent on finding out what happened to the Negro snatched from the Wildwood jail Sunday."
The American painter Robert Henri once said: "You should paint like a man coming over the top of the hill singing." Zinsser says such enjoyment is "a crucial ingredient in writing." Wodehouse was enjoying himself when he began "Leave it to Psmith" this way: "At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain."
Some of Zinsser's models were lyricists of the Great American Songbook. A few were WASPs; Cole Porter went to Yale. Many were Jews, such as Israel Baline from Siberia who became Irving Berlin, immigrants who, Zinsser says, embraced the American language with fierce love. Or E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, who saw infinite possibilities "Over the Rainbow," where happy little bluebirds fly and troubles melt like lemon drops.
Our "endlessly supple" English language will, Zinsser says, "do anything you ask it to do, if you treat it well. Try it and see." Try him and see craftsmanship.
George Will's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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