Before his book “On Writing Well” sold more than a million copies, William Zinsser was master of Branford College and taught a nonfiction workshop in the 1970s. He made a superlative impression on his students. When four of them came to Yale last month to speak at an event honoring Zinsser, who died in May, they called him the “warmest” and “best” professor they ever had. “The magic of the class sprang directly from Zinsser,” said Jane Mayer, a staff writer at The New Yorker. “I’m tempted to say, ‘They don’t make them like Bill Zinsser any more,’” said novelist Christopher Buckley. “Only I can see his red pen comment in the margin: ‘Avoid cliché.’”
Zinsser was unpretentious and funny; word of his class spread fast. In his first year teaching, his seminar received 170 applications in a semester. The panelists, even after careers at America’s foremost publications, seemed grateful and a shade incredulous that they got a spot in Zinsser’s 15-seat seminar. “I am sometimes amazed that he let me into his residential college seminar on writing humor,” said Mayer. At the dinner before the event, John Tierney, of the New York Times, revealed that Zinsser had asked him to take the course as a freshman. “The resentment that showed when we learned that,” said Fred Strebeigh, shaking his head, his sentence trailing off. (Strebeigh, another Zinsser alum, teaches nonfiction at Yale.)
This endemic anxiety of Yale students — that the best experiences come with the slimmest odds of admission — has not faded over 40 years. Sitting in the middle of the Branford common room, I remembered my own flash of resentment when, earlier this fall, I learned I was one of some-dozen would-be nonfiction writers without a seminar seat. But as is common when my confidence flags, I was missing the bigger point. I owe much of what I’ve learned about writing to what our university learned from William Zinsser.
Zinsser’s class introduced Yale to serious nonfiction. “At the time there was nothing else like it,” said Strebeigh. “No one took the time to talk about E.B. White or Joan Didion or John McPhee. You could not get that in a classroom — modern nonfiction writers worth taking seriously.” In the mid-1970s, Yale used Zinsser’s class as a model for a nonfiction seminar that any student could take. The result was English 120.
“The class both stands on Bill’s shoulders and honors him,” Strebeigh told me, minutes after his own English 120 section had finished for the afternoon. “The other tributary is the Yale English department. I think of English 120 as ‘close reading for craft.’ Zinsser would tell you to read Tom Wolfe, but, ‘Don’t you dare try to write like Tom Wolfe.’ In English 120, we say, ‘Go for it!’” The 300-odd students who pre-register for English 120 every year get a modified version of the Zinsser experience. Many professors assign Zinsser’s book, but the magic no longer springs from one source.
Yale began offering more upper level nonfiction courses, too. This year there were four or five nonfiction seminars a semester, ranging from “Writing Humor” to “Writing about Oneself.” Students also take “Daily Themes,” a creative writing lecture where students meet with tutors and write 300 words a day. These classes accommodate more than a hundred students a year.
“There’s still a terrible supply-demand ratio,” professor Anne Fadiman told me. Fadiman teaches two advanced nonfiction seminars every year. “We wring our hands at the number of people we have to say no to. Every semester I get a few emails from students who ask what was wrong with their application. Nothing was wrong with their application. You have to remember that writing teachers are capricious and have changing tastes. If you’re a really great writer and you keep at it, you’ll get into some classes eventually.” “But,” she added, “none of these classes is a miraculous road to writing success.”
Zinsser liked to begin every semester by telling his class, “Writing well can’t be taught, but it can be learned.” Even superlative professors impart only so much. Students are left to hammer and shape their own prose. Though Yale does not offer all the classes its aspiring writers want, it does teach many of us unsolicited lessons in disappointment and perseverance. These lessons are important. Writing is an ego-bruising business, with no miraculous path. Zinsser’s voice has carried far beyond his small, decadelong seminar. It hums from a generation’s worth of profiles and patient histories, memos and memoirs, from prose warmer and clearer than what might have been.
Nathan Kohrman is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .