What Happens When Your Writing Professor Is William Zinsser

The weekly writing assignments—thousand-word limit, a safeguard for Bill’s sanity—required us to try our hands at a wide range of forms: humor, interviewing, travel, science, sports, criticism, editorials. This regimen inevitably yielded the occasional face-first failure, soon to be transmuted by pedagogical alchemy into an edifying failure. At the end of class, Bill would return our papers from the previous week, each illuminated with his editing suggestions and provocative marginalia. I still wince at his dead-on appraisal of my travel piece: “You’ll notice that I stopped marking this halfway through. What you’ve written is interesting only to you.”

In The New Yorker, Mark Singer remembers his former teacher, On Writing Well author William Zinsser, who died May 12.

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Fairyland: Memories of a Singular San Francisco Girlhood

Alysia Abbott with her father Steve Abbott, 1983. Photo courtesy of Alysia Abbott.
Alysia Abbott with her father Steve Abbott, 1983. Photo courtesy of Alysia Abbott.

Alysia Abbott | Fairyland, a Memoir of My Father | June 2014 | W. W. Norton & Company | 17 minutes (4,188 words)

After his wife died in a car accident in 1973, bisexual writer and activist Steve Abbott moved with his two-year-old daughter Alysia to San Francisco, a city bustling with gay men in search of liberation. Fairyland, a Memoir of My Father is that daughter’s story—a paean to the poet father who raised her as a single, openly gay man, and a vivid memoir of a singular and at times otherworldly girlhood. As noted in The New Yorker, the memoir, which vividly recalls San Francisco in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, “doubles as a portrait of a city and a community at a crucial point in history.”  Our thanks to Abbott for allowing us to reprint this excerpt here.


I called him Eddie Body. At four years old, language was my playground. “Eddie Body’s not anybody! Eddie Body’s not anybody!” I’d repeat, relishing the near symmetry of the sounds. Eddie Body was Dad’s new boyfriend, his first serious relationship after our move to San Francisco in 1974. There’d been different men—good-looking men, funny-looking men, almost always tall and skinny and young—that I found in Dad’s bed in the mornings. But it was different with Ed. He was the only one with whom I became close. He is the only one I can remember. We spent six months living with Eddie Body. I loved him.

A twenty-two-year-old kid from upstate New York, Eddie Body had moved to San Francisco to get away from his pregnant wife, Mary Ann. He’d made a pass at my dad one afternoon over a game of chess in the Panhandle Park. Soon after, Ed moved into our apartment, a four-bedroom Victorian located a few blocks from Haight Street.

Haight-Ashbury’s “Summer of Love” had ended in 1968 with the arrival of heroin and petty crime. For years the neighborhood was dominated by bars, liquor stores, and boarded-up storefronts. But rent was cheap and soon my father, along with scores of other like-minded searchers, moved in, setting up haphazard households in the dilapidated Victorian flats that lined Oak and Page streets. Many of these new residents, if not hippies themselves, shared an ethos of experimentation and free expression. Many also happened to be gay. Read more…

The Big Business of International Kidnapping

Photo via Risks Incorporated
Photo via Risks Incorporated

As we drive to an office in nearby Pembroke Pines, Wilson briefs me on the bourgeoning business of international kidnapping. The White House’s recent acknowledgment of the accidental killing of two al-Qaida hostages in Pakistan in January, as well as the dark news from Syria in recent months, both overshadows and underscores the fact that kidnappings are a global scourge. As incidents have increased worldwide, a parallel industry has emerged, one that includes insurance companies, negotiators, lawyers, and security firms like Risks Inc. In a 2010 investigation, London’s Independent newspaper dubbed this the “hostage industry,” and estimated its worth at about $1.6 billion a year.

“You don’t have to be rich. People will kidnap you for next to nothing,” Wilson says. “Venezuela is out of control. Mexico is out of control.” Most of his clients for the Florida course are executives or wealthy individuals who live in high-risk areas, primarily in Latin America. (Wilson also offers the course in Belgrade, Serbia.) Other students have included American businessmen who travel to potentially dangerous locations, security contractors, and an international yacht captain. (Lambros Y. Lambrou, a trial lawyer in Manhattan and a father of two, took Wilson’s kidnap course to help ensure his family’s safety when they travel to countries like Mexico and Serbia, where his wife is from. “We live in a very uncertain world sometimes,” Lambrou says. “Unfortunately, most of the time the only person you have to protect you is yourself.”)

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Judy Blume, on the Age that Defined Her for Life

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Blume does think that she turned toward children’s fiction because she was still living a relatively sheltered life. “I didn’t have any adult experience when I started to write,” she said. “So I identified more with kids.” Her own fate felt sealed, airless. “I felt, I made this decision. This is it. It’s not all open for me anymore.” To her, it was only natural that she look backward, to the age when she felt most powerful and adulthood still promised the adventures her father wanted for her. She had been a fierce and creative child; on the page, at least, she still was. Blume likes the idea that everybody has an age that defines them for life. For her, she said, that age is 12.

— From a profile of beloved author Judy Blume in The New York Times Magazine.

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Cass Sunstein Remembers Thurgood Marshall

Photo by Villanova Law Library, Flickr

You clerked with Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. What was he like?

He was very, very quick. He had a sense of the human reality of the cases, which he could size up in an instant partly because because he had been a trial lawyer. He was a repository of experience such as the human race rarely has. In the sense that he had been a lower court judge, a Supreme Court justice, solicitor general of the United States and the most successful supreme court advocate probably in the court’s history—at the point when the court was arguably more significant than at any time in the nation’s history.

So he argued and kind of conceptualized Brown v. Board of Education and he had at the top of his mind, it seemed, stories and anecdotes about the early civil rights days. He knew Martin Luther King, he had been on the phone with Roosevelt. He knew Johnson very, very well. He knew the Kennedys. So he was like a walking history book. But also someone who could read a brief and say, “I know what’s really going on here.” And there were some cases where the briefs wouldn’t capture what he knew was going on. And he would ask us, why don’t you do a little digging. And he was always right.

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein, interviewed by Matt Phillips in Quartz.

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How the Skater Kids From the Movie ‘Kids’ Were Cast

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

[Harmony] Korine, nineteen at the time, and [Larry] Clark, then over fifty, wrangled the troops from the skate clique, supplementing them with more non-actors from Washington Square Park and the club scene, and across downtown—including Chloë Sevigny, from tony Darien, Connecticut, who had been hanging out with the crew in Washington Square Park for years. They plucked a then fifteen-year-old Rosario Dawson from her stoop in the East Village. Vibe magazine was shooting a commercial on her block, and her father told her to go downstairs to get discovered. Korine heard her laughing loudly at a strange man who looked like Jesus, walked over and told her, “You’re exactly what I wrote.”

Rosario’s father rode her on his bike handlebars to the auditions, downtown on Broadway. When it came down to Rosario and another girl for the part of Ruby, Harold, who she knew from the East Village, was the deciding factor–he told Korine and Clark to go with his neighbor.

Caroline Rothstein writing for Narratively in 2013 about what happened to the cast of the seminal 1995 movie Kids.

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A Woman on the Margins

Photo: Mitchell Bach
Photo: Mitchell Bach

Jessica Gross | Longreads | May 2015 | 17 minutes (4,223 words)


I first encountered the work of the memoirist, critic, and journalist Vivian Gornick in graduate school when we were assigned The Situation and the Story, her handbook on personal writing. Gornick explains that the writer must create out of her real self a separate narrative persona. The narrator has wisdom and distance the writer may not, and can craft a meaningful story out of the raw details of life. This slim book cracked open my understanding of what it means to write.

In Fierce Attachments, her 1987 memoir, Gornick wields her narrative persona to construct an incisive, nuanced portrait of her conflicted bond with her mother. She describes the Bronx tenements where she grew up, the early death of her father, the complex relationship with their neighbor Nettie and, at the center of it all, a struggle with her codependent maternal bond. Her new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, a collage of interactions in the New York City streets and with her longtime friend Leonard, is a meditation on friendship, her status as an “Odd Woman”—a second-wave feminist—and her place in urban life.

We met at a restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where Gornick was staying for spring break before she returned to the University of Iowa where she teaches at the nonfiction program. It was sleeting out, and Gornick asked me if her mascara was running, then ordered a mezzo plate and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. She began by telling me how much she hates teaching.

Why do you teach so much?

I don’t do it often at all anymore. In this case, they offered me too much money, and I felt I couldn’t say no. But I was wrong: I should have said no.

Why is that?

I can’t live for four months in a place like Iowa City anymore. I’m really too old for that. I’m not even sure I do need the money, but you always feel you need the money. I always taught just to make a living, and I made myself a good teacher of writing; I certainly made myself a good editor. But this time around I saw that I am so deeply out of sympathy with the whole enterprise that it’s immoral for me to teach. Read more…

The Unlikely Union of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

One year earlier, it had been inconceivable that Reagan’s and Bush’s destinies would seamlessly merge and propel them both to the White House.

In the Pennsylvania GOP primary, Bush uttered three words that almost doomed his political rise. At Carnegie Mellon University, he dismissed Reagan’s plan to cut taxes, increase defense spending and balance the budget as “voodoo economic policy.”

“That really pissed off Reagan,” says Richard V. Allen, who was the Californian’s foreign policy specialist.

A month later, Bush dropped out of the race. In his diary, he pondered, “What’s it going to be like? Driving a car, being lonely around the house?”

But on a July night when Reagan was nominated, fate intervened. At 11:35 p.m., a plan to pick Gerald Ford as his running mate collapsed during a meeting between Reagan and the former president.

After Ford left the nominee’s 69th-floor suite at the Detroit Plaza Hotel, Reagan explained to his inner circle, “All this time, my gut instinct has been that this is not the right thing.”

The room was silent until Reagan asked, “Well, what do we do now?”

“We call Bush,” said Allen, who had already put out feelers to see if the Texan could embrace the platform — voodoo economic policy and all. He could.

Alan Peppard writing for The Dallas Morning News about the events surrounding the 1981 attempted assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan.

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