“On Writing Well”

"On Writing Well" by William Zinsser

My mind just couldn’t hone in on something to write about. I sat down to read William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.” I usually love reading Zinsser, but my eyes were feeling heavy. Just before I put the book down, I read his words “Get their voice and their taste in your ear.” He was referring to finding your voice. It made me think about the writers I love. Garrison Keillor is probably my favorite author, but his work is fiction. Does that count? Then I thought about author Eric Poole. His first book is called “Where’s my wand?” It’s about growing up believing the show “Bewitched” was real, that might do. Something was missing though, and my body was getting weaker. So I let the nap take over and I drifted away.

Outside I heard tires grab at the loose gravel in the unpaved driveway. The neighbor’s dog started shouting out the window at whoever was here.  I was awake. I have been out for two hours. I sat up from the couch and took stock of the living room, I saw Zinssers book still sitting on my coffee table. I grabbed it and dove in where I left off.

My mind was blank, when these words were processed:

“This was a generation reared on television, where the picture is valued more than the words, in fact, is devalued, used as mere chatter and often misused and mispronounced. It was also a generation reared on music-songs and rhythms meant primarily to be heard and felt. With so much noise in the air, was any American child being trained to listen? Was anyone calling attention to the majesty of a well-constructed sentence?”

A feeling of guilt washed over me as I realized just how right he was. I grew up in the world Zinsser describes. Pictures always meant more than words. At college I developed as a news photographer, I focused on how to frame a picture. I worked hard to perfect the “natural sound piece.” A story told through the lens of the camera without the voice of a reporter. One of the tricks to good reporting was writing to the picture. In TV news you can’t write to something you can’t show.

Then I thought about my distain for Lady Gaga. I don’t think she has any talent. She may have a nice voice, and I admit a great flair for showmanship, but she can’t write. Her lyrics are so heavily dampened by modern music no one hears the words. A few weeks ago I couldn’t avoid her. My favorite new show “Glee” was having a special Lady Gaga episode. While the performer herself was not featured, her music was. The show cemented my feelings. I saw a mother and daughter sing “Poker Face” as a duet. The song grew further lost on me. While I admit liking the songs more as performed by stronger singers, the words made less sense hearing them more clearly without the noise.  Here is a sample from the song “Poker Face”

I won’t tell you that I love you.

Kiss or hug you.

Cause I’m bluffin’ with my muffin.

I’m not lying I’m just stunnin’ with my love-glue-gunning.

Just like a chick in the casino.

Take your bank before I pay you out.

I promise this, promise this.

Check this hand cause I’m marvelous.”

I can’t see what inspired the makers of  “Glee” to use this as a mother-daughter duet. Hearing it sung with just a piano, and no other musical accompaniment, I found it to be funny. Something I would hear on “Saturday Night Live.”

You can’t blame Lady Gaga though. She was raised on the same pop culture I was. She was smart enough to understand it. We’re both guilty of the same thing though, not writing well. I can’t vouch for her, but William Zinsser is helping me.

I have been told for years that, writing for TV is very different then writing for other mediums. I don’t think so anymore. When I tried to write my very first news story a few months ago, I was terrified. One boss taught me to write in the folksy, breezy style, Zinsser warns against. Another boss just showed me how to strip it all away and keep it simple. I walked away thinking my script was too simple. I have been so intimidated by writing for news; I have avoided it for so long. I’m still apprehensive, but the picture is getting clearer. I still have clutter, but not as much as before. I can recognize where certain words aren’t needed. I am not where I need to be, but I’m more tuned in than I was.

Last weekend, my stepbrother got married. The bride’s aunt wanted to stand up and say a few words. She pulled out a speech she had crafted. Once she started to read, I thought; this must be the first time she is reading this out loud. It did not flow and there was too much clutter. It may have sounded loving in her mind, but it was coming through as insulting and rude. She read it in a sweet voice, but clearly this was the first time out loud. The wrong words left me distracted from the message she intended.

My writing isn’t where it should be yet, but Mr. Zinsser, I am listening. Tuned in to what I was missing before.