Friday, November 10, 2006

There's an interesting interview on NPR with William Zinsser, author of the classic guide On Writing Well, about the challenges of writing personal history. One of the quotes from his essay, How To Write A Memoir, feels particularly useful:
"My final reducing advice can be summed up in two words: think small. Don't rummage around in your past -- or your family's past -- to find episodes that you think are "important" enough to be worthy of including in your memoir. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it's because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life."

But it's what he has to say about readers that really makes me think:
"Who is this elusive creature the reader? He is a person with an attention span of about twenty seconds. He is assailed on every side by forces competing for his time: by newspapers and magazines, by television and radio, by his stereo and videocassettes, by his wife and children and pets, by his house and his yard and all the gadgets that he has bought to keep them spruce, and by that most potent of competitors, sleep. The man snoozing in his chair with an unfinished magazine open on his lap is a man who was being given too much unnecessary trouble by the writer.

It won't do to say that the snoozing reader is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the train of thought. My sympathies are with him. If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer has not been careful enough to keep him on the path."

Barthes said writers had to 'cruise' the reader; I guess it would be a pretty poor seduction if the seductee went off to make a cup of tea, or even fell asleep during the fireworks.

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