Web Exclusives: PawPlus

June 9, 2004:

Recording your life story
Writer and teacher William Zinsser ’44 pens another instructional book

In his new book, Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past (Marlowe & Company), William Zinsser ’44 shows readers how to write about their lives through describing bits and pieces of his own. Part memoir, part instructional book, Writing About Your Life is directed to writers of all levels. Zinsser recalls the people, places, and events that left an impression on him and pauses between those stories to explain the technical decisions he made in writing them. The author of the classic guide On Writing Well (1976), Zinsser teaches writing at the New School in New York City. He advises readers: “Write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory.”

Below is an excerpt from his book. He describes returning to Princeton in 1945 after serving with the army in World War II and earning certificates for art history courses that he took at an army college in Florence, Italy.


In November a troopship finally came to Naples and took me and 5,000 other men home, and I went to Princeton for an interview with the university official who would review my record. When I left college I had accumulated a grab bag of wartime credits that almost added up to a B.A. degree. Now I had three more, which Princeton granted just for serving in the armed forces, plus my army certificates. Originally I had thought I would want to return to Princeton for one more term to round out my fragmented college years. Now I only wanted to get on with whatever I was going to do next.

I was nervous as I walked across the campus to Nassau Hall, clothed in 200 years of historic ivy. The certificates I was clutching suddenly looked crude. Worst of all, I learned that my interview would be with Dean Root. Dean Root! I might as well get back on the train. Robert K. Root, dean of Princeton’s faculty and guardian of its academic honor, was the prototype old professor. I had taken his lecture course in Augustan literature and had listened, week after week, as he excavated with dry precision the buried ironies and unsuspected jests of Alexander Pope, which even then we continued not to suspect. It never occurred to me that we would ever meet, and I was sorry to be meeting him now. He looked just as stern up close.

Dean Root studied my Princeton transcript and then looked at my army certificates. He said he had never seen anything like them; I was the first veteran to show up from one of the army’s postwar colleges. Then he studied my transcript again and made some notes. Then he studied the army certificates again and made more notes. He was scowling and mumbling. I could see that he was adding up my credits and that they weren’t adding up to a B.A. degree. He shook his head and mumbled that I seemed to be a little short. I told myself I was a dead duck.

Then, suddenly, I was no longer being examined by a dean. A real person was sitting across from me, his features not unkindly, and he asked me what I had done during the war. I found myself telling him about my year in North Africa and how it opened my eyes to the Arab world. I told him about my hitchhiking trips to Rome, and about seeing La Bohème in the Naples opera house, and about my Renaissance summer in Florence, and about the weekend jaunts I made to Pisa and Lucca and Siena to look at their art and architecture.

The dean’s face clouded over. “Tell me,” he said, “I suppose Siena was mostly destroyed during the war.” I realized that I was the first returning soldier to bring him news of the beautiful old city. Suddenly I understood what Siena would mean to this quintessential humanist; probably he had first seen it as a young man himself. Suddenly it was possible to understand that Dean Root had once been a young man. I told him that Siena hadn’t been touched by the war and that the great striped duomo was still there on its hilltop, as it had been since the 12th century, visible to travelers from miles away.

Dean Root smiled fleetingly and saw me to the door and said Princeton would inform me of its decision soon. Two weeks later he wrote to say that I had passed Princeton’s requirements for a degree and that I could receive my diploma at a special winter graduation for returning servicemen. I’ve always thought he waived one or two credits to make my total come out right: in the middle of the interview he decided to stop counting; numbers weren’t as important to him as learning. In January I went to Princeton and rented a cap and gown and received my dubious B.A. Not long afterward I got the job that had been my boyhood dream — working for the New York Herald Tribune — and began my career as a journalist. Dean Root had freed me to get on with my life.

Reprinted with permission of Avalon Publishing Group.