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Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  499 ratings  ·  75 reviews
An ingeniously constructed teaching memoir from the author of the bestselling On Writing Well -- "You learn without knowing it." (Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes)
Written with elegance, warmth, and humor, this highly original "teaching memoir" by William Zinsser--renowned bestselling author of On Writing Well gives you the tools to organize and recover your past, an
Paperback, 240 pages
Published March 28th 2005 by Da Capo Press (first published 2004)
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Adam Floridia
Jan 01, 2011 rated it did not like it
This book is angeringly awful! First it should be called "Zinsser Writing About Zinsser's life." The chapters, each one more obtuse and irrelevant than the previous, just tell stupid vignettes about his life. In the beginning he would crowbar in a writing tip every few pages or so (the types of trite tips you can find anywhere: "Good writers write what they know" and tripe like that). However, as the chapters progressed he stopped even pretending that this was a book purporting to teach writing; ...more
Oct 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This guy could write a manual about cleaning my dog's ears and I would love it. I loved all of it, but if I had to pick favorite parts, I would choose chapters 1 ('Message on My Machine') and 11 ('Writing as a Ministry'). I cry easily during movies and Kodak commercials (not that I've seen one of those in a long time), but no so much with books. Before this book, I think 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' by Khaled Hosseini is the only book that made me cry. I didn't expect to have such an emotional rea ...more
Pranada Comtois
Apr 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
What better way to teach writing memoir than writing snippets and commenting on it and giving technical background and why he wrote as he did. The first chapters are better than later chapters, being more rich with instruction. The book is very enjoyable to read and I found good advice. It was helpful to have a writing sample in front of me and understand why an experienced writer/teacher wrote the way he did.

Zinsser says to think small and write about small self-contained that are vivid. He ex
Jim Belcher
Dec 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I am reading "Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past" for the second time. Zinsser has been a guide for me since the day I began my first book, Deep Church, almost seven years ago. My friend, lawyer and author Michael Carroll, gave me Zinsser's most famous book, "On Writing Well" to celebrate my first book contract. On Writing Well inspired, guided, and shaped me as a writer. As I begin the rewrite for my second book, I look to Zinsser again, this time to his book on memoirs, which I f ...more
Mar 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
Writing About Your Life by William Zinsser is a sort of metacognitive how-to book. The majority of the text consists of his own autobiography sprinkled with bits and pieces of invaluable advice to writers. He does more showing instead of telling. In general, I liked his approach and found it to be a quick read. There are some gems of advice I will quote later in this review, but I have to admit, I wish there was more dissection of his own writing going on. I would have liked to see some “non” e ...more
Joyce L. Miller
Jul 20, 2020 rated it liked it
I absolutely love and recommend another of the author's books, "On Writing Well", to anyone who puts pen to paper. It's a great motivational book that should be re-read it every once-in-a-while. It's a true 5/5. This book, "Writing about Your Life", is both the author's own memoir and an instruction book for writing your own. Many of the stories in the book were presented in "On Writing Well." If you don't own "On Writing Well," you may enjoy this book because it is well-written, entertaining an ...more
Sep 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
I picked this book off my shelf for the second time. By sharing pieces of his writings, Zinsser eloquently models good memoir writing. Think small and don't write "about" anything. Great advice for both readers and writers.
D.G. Kaye
Apr 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I love the way this man writes. He has had a fascinating life and includes it in much of his writing. He tells us to write for ourselves, just how we see it, you don't have to add unnecessary words to make it fancy. I will soon be reading his 'On Writing Well'.
Diane Dreher
May 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Diane by:
Wonderful book about the writing life and writing memoirs. Zinsser is a first rate writer who teaches and delights.
Scott J Pearson
William Zinsser is famous for being an excellent coach for writers. He has mastered the art of communicating through words. He has followed an alternative career path that has brought him success and fulfillment. He shares his insights in this memoir of his life while coaching the reader how to write about her/his own life.

Zinsser’s style is humble and consistently strikes the right tone for sharing the memory. That skill – sharing memories – is the essence of a memoir and is exactly what this w
Rosa King
Sep 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What I thought would be an instruction manual on how to write memoirs turned out to be a moving memoir about the author’s life. Embedded in a series of short narratives, many of them excerpts from previously published articles, are William Zinsser’s comments that illustrate how and why his approach to writing one's story is positive and effective. I discovered through reading this book about writing about your life, that I was increasingly immersed in the author’s life experiences. One of my fav ...more
Nov 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing, 2018
This is the second book I’ve read by William Zinsser and I can’t say I’ve ever come across such warm and encouraging writing before. This book is about so much more than just writing - it’s about life, storytelling, focusing on what’s important and having faith in yourself and your voice. I read the book over a few months, not because it was boring, but because every chapter would resonate so strongly with me and move me in such a deep sense, it was hard to continue reading without reflecting on ...more
Dec 02, 2019 rated it it was ok
Nothing about this book resembled a "how-to" for aspiring authors. Instead, Zinsser chose to write about events that transpired in his own life, as though compiling them would be interesting or inspiring to us mere mortals. A lot of "Writing About Your Life" reads as a self-congratulatory letter from the author to himself where he pats himself on the back time and time again for his achievements, and I can honestly say that after 328 pages, I learned very little that was new or groundbreaking ab ...more
Peter B
Jul 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a very empowering piece of work as Zinsser advocates letting go of the things I thought important and to go find out what really is important. “Give yourself permission to risk the unknown. Dare to not do what the world expects you to do.” The only flaw in his permission is that he does a lot of name-dropping in his anecdotes and unfortunately is still measuring success by the fact that many of those who stepped outside the expectations still made good in an expected way.
All that aside,
Oct 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a terrific book. It is for anyone thinking about writing their memoirs, or just interested
in writing. Mr. Zinsser's personality comes shining through which makes this book even more
interesting and informative. A real pleasure to read.
Feb 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
The author is an interesting and well travelled man who spins great side stories keeping you interested in learning about memoir writing and life. He keeps the reader both entertained and well informed. Recommended reading for all writers.
Jan 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Beautifully written, of course, since it’s William Zinsser, but contains wonderful stories of a fascinating life. (No matter what he says, most of us just don’t have his range of raw material to work from!)
Eleise Kinch
Nov 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Very helpful writing my family's memoir. Two thumbs up!
Paula Bartlett
Feb 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Zinsser is amazing! Proof that writing comes naturally so to some. I'd like to get him is the same room with Erma Fisk and Frank McCourt.
Mar 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Equally good but this was based on Zinsser's own memoirs and writing. Lots of excellent how to do it information.
Sophie Cayeux
Apr 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Easy, entertaining read. Anecdotes from the writer’s life experience. Great story telling full of advice for any writer wishing to write about his/her life.
Feb 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Years ago, I read Zinsser’s classic work, On Writing Well, which came out of Zinsser’s experience of teaching Creative Writing at Yale in the 1970s. He was in his fifties when he wrote, On Writing Well, having already done stints as a journalist and a free-lance author. Now, late in his life, Zinsser has published a new book on memoirs. This book is based on lectures given during his “post-retirement years†as a professor at the New School in New York City. Although the title sounds like ...more
David James
Sep 10, 2015 rated it really liked it

Zinsser, William. Writing About Your Life

In this book Zinsser provides the reader with advice on writing a memoir, using his own life and writing as the ‘story’ behind the writing self. In other words he’s doing while teaching. This is a most interesting and stimulating approach to the impossible problem of ‘how to.’ The answer is simply, write on what interests you and it will interest others. Well, yes, maybe and maybe not. I am no lover of baseball or computer games and found the chapters dea
Feb 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
It is a privilege to write for one other person, but most importantly, write for yourself. Writing events, people and places that have changed you.

Change is a tonic. Choose changes that meet your highest standard.
Jan 18, 2016 rated it liked it
Zinsser seems to be a special man--tender and warm, with a voice of authenticity and kindness. He desires to impart a message, or few, that will serve to help a writer in her craft. I found this to be true here and there throughout the book, and in those moments, I underlined the phrases, such as:

"Write about things that are important to you, not about what you think readers will want to read, or editors will want to publish or agents will want to sell." - or -

"If you put your writing in the fo
Whitney Archibald
May 03, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: on-writing
My creative writing teacher in college suggested that before attempting any sort of creative writing, you should first write a memoir to both practice your writing and to declutter your own experiences so you don't keep revisiting them in your later fiction. I decided to take her advice and checked out this book to give myself a jump start.

At first, this book really got the juices flowing. After I read the first couple of chapters I sat down and wrote down all the memories I could think of abou
Aug 28, 2010 rated it liked it
This book was a bit disappointing. It was an entertaining read, if you just consider it as a collection of Zinsser's own stories. In the first few chapters, the stories are interrupted to explain the techniques being used. In later chapters, he seems to have gotten bored with this. As for writing, it seems like the standard sort of information about writing well. In a later chapter, this is a tip on getting on with recording your own story.

A nice bit of serendipity, Zinsser mentions Clifton Fadi
Oct 02, 2012 rated it liked it
Zinsser reads like a sincere old man with a gentle sense of humor and an optimism unmarred by adversity. He writes charmingly and blandly about his sheltered life.

Chapters 1-4 were fairly enjoyable! Endearing sketches of his youth, interspersed with helpful tips for wannabe memoirists.

Chapters 5-9 were pleasant but slow. Contains a few mildly helpful gems, scattered across acres of grandfatherly recollections about baseball, publishing, academia, etc.

Can't say much about chapters 10-13; by thi
Jul 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past by William Zinsser (Book Review)

Clarity and simplicity bring life to a story. I’ve seen it now in practice. *Writing About Your Life* pointed out a few tips and I’ve felt my own writing contain a little something more to it. My old habits of adverbs, adjectives, and compound thoughts slowed the stories I wanted to share.

Another neat trait of Zinsser’s book is that you see the tips in practice. He’s writing a memoir and teaching at the same time.
Feb 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011
Found in a bookstore in Cleveland, OH.

Writing About Your Life is everything I've come to expect from a William Zinsser book.

The writing is always crisp and peppered with humor. The voice coming from the words as I read them is that of a wise old man, instructional and encouraging in tone as if to say "Anyone can do this" but not in a patronizing way. I felt the same way at the end of this book as I did at the end of On Writing Well -- good writing is achievable.

I love the idea of the book, whi
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William Knowlton Zinsser is an American writer, editor, literary critic, and teacher. He began his career as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, where he worked as a feature writer, drama editor, film critic, and editorial writer. He has been a longtime contributor to leading magazines.

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