How to Write a Memoir … be yourself, speak freely, think small … writers are the custodians of memory …

William Zinsser (1922-2015), American writer, teacher, editor, literary and film critic, feature writer for the New York Herald Tribune

William Zinsser (1922-2015), American writer, teacher, editor, literary and film critic, feature writer for the now defunct New York Herald Tribune

Recently a friend mentioned the wish to write a memoir. There are any number of reasons for doing this and generally it’s not about publication. It’s about leaving a record behind for children and grandchildren.

unknown-8While searching for some material that she might find helpful, I happened upon this feature by William Zinsser of On Writing Well fame in The American Scholar, Spring 2006. I think my friend is not the only one who would be interested, so here it is for you too:

One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.” Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather. As every parent knows, our children are not as fascinated by our fascinating lives as we are. Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and all its accretions of anecdote and lore. “What exactly were those stories my dad used to tell about coming to America?” “Where exactly was that farm in the Midwest where my mother grew up?” MORE

For the Record: Remembering Mom, a brief (about 1,000 words) memoir of my own mother, Zbaida, originally published by Connotation Press.


On Writing Well, considered a classic, is not without problems. It does however have its virtues. Originally published in 1976, it was a book of the month club selection. In the early days of my career it was always recommended to young writers along with The Elements of Style. I believe On Writing Well is now in it’s twelfth printing.

At the time of Zinsser’s death in 2015, 1.5 million copies had been sold.  Bryn Mawr has posted a copy of the 25th Anniversary edition in PDF. The first couple of pages – the cover art et al – are rather blurry, but the table-of-contents and chapter texts are clear. If you haven’t read On Writing Well, you might enjoy and even benefit from checking it out. Newer editions have been reworked to include contemporary concerns: technology, diverse cultures, and demographics.

If you are a mature writer still struggling to find your voice, it might give you hope and comfort to know that in his biography Zinsser said that he didn’t find his writer-voice until in his 50s.