“Writing is learned by imitation; we all need models.”
Our boy Willie is a busy fellow! He’s the author of a classic guide which I’ve drawn on for many a post called On Writing Well (see Ink Think and Clutter Patrol). And in his 80s — don’t you love it! — he started writing a blog for the American Scholar magazine’s Web site that actually beat out Rolling Stone for a digital publishing award! His blog posts — short essays, really — now happily nestle together in a book called The Writer Who Stayed (reminds me of “The Boy Who Lived,” the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book). This book of blogs sounds like a winner and I shall surely wing it to you in future posts. But I meander.
What I really meant to chat up here is Willie’s comment about the need for role models for writers. One of the writers who inspired awe and imitation in him was Joseph Mitchell, a New Yorker essayist revered by many for his fabulous, yet seemingly effortless, long-form stories about unsung heroes, heroines, and happenings across and around the city. I’ve read a few of these and they are riveting and yet so relaxed in the way they deliver information and observation. What a gift!
As a lover of musicals and witty, winsome rhymes, I was thrilled to learn that other writers on William Zinsser’s hit parade list are lyricists — masters of the story song — like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin (an immigrant and fierce lover of the American language), and “Yip” Harburg, who gave us the immortal “Over the Rainbow.” It makes me smile to think that these storytellers won William’s heart with their simple, yet timeless songs. What can we learn from them?