October 30, 2016
Dear Mr. Zinsser,
We never shook hands or formally introduced ourselves, but we met ten years ago when you spoke at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Ossining, New York. The late July sun poured in through the windows of the long, rectangular room, making the hardwood floors glisten in the summer light. Alone, I sat in the third or fourth row, my back to the Hudson River, and watched you at the podium.
I liked how your hair, wisps of white, framed your square face and how your ebony glasses created contrast. Your fair skin, prominent forehead, and bushy eyebrows affirmed your all-American professorial look. Despite age—somewhere in your mid-eighties—you seemed agile and spry, mentally and physically.
Your stories entertained me, especially when you explained how you escaped from the family’s century-old shellac business but still fielded phone calls from hardware dealers and homeowners about water stains and primers, how your mother engrained wholesome Christian values in you, and how you, as a writer, operate within a framework of Christian principles. You admitted to being cursed with optimism and pleaded guilty to positive thinking.
“Be nice when you write,” you said. “If you’re writing out of a place of revenge or anger, you’re writing for the wrong reasons.”
I shifted my weight, uncrossed my legs, and crossed them the other way. I pondered your words—be nice when you write—like a parent reminding a child to be nice when he plays.
You continued speaking. “I always write to affirm. I choose to write about people whose values I respect; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives.”
A train chugged into the station beneath the writing studio. “Does anyone have any questions?” you asked. I shot my hand up in the air like an arrow.
“I’m writing about my brother,” I said. “He knows because I ask him questions sometimes, but he’s made it clear that he doesn’t really want to know what I’m writing. He lives in Israel, and I’m finally on page 46 of what might become a memoir. I’ve been trying to write about my only sibling who turned his back on our American Reform Jewish upbringing and became an Ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jew in Jerusalem for decades. My writing group’s urging me to go on and dig deeper. But is that okay? Do I have the right?”
You nodded. Other participants nodded. I knew from these nods I wasn’t alone.
“Yes, you have the right to write about your brother. Again, as long as you’re coming from a place of inquisition and exploration, trying to understand your relationship not to denounce or destroy it with your words.” And then, maybe I’m making it up, you said something like you gave me your blessing.
A few years later, I began teaching memoir writing classes in New York and continue to do so, now in Israel. Regardless of where I teach, the same question always arises: how do we write about someone who is still alive in our life?
Every time, I paraphrase your words. I detect people clear their throats and shift in their seats.
Last year, during my third semester of an MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I wrote, workshopped, revised, and titled an essay “Things Lost, Things Found” in which I tallied my losses due to death, moving, and growing up and acknowledged my gains thanks to maturity, perspective, and my support network. Finally, almost a year later, it appeared in Under the Sun literary journal.
Readers, including many friends and students, responded. They related. They thought about their own losses and finds.
About six weeks later, the editor emailed to congratulate me, among others; she nominated my essay for a Pushcart Prize 2016 and submitted it to Best American Essays, hoping that she will deliver good news in the months to come.
That same day, my brother called. No hi, hello, or how are you. Just anger, rants, and rage. “You have no right to write about me. I’m going to ask a lawyer what to do to make sure my name never appears in print by you.”
“But I didn’t even write your name,” I said.
“No, you wrote my brother. That’s enough. As far as I’m concerned, I’m officially an only child. I hope you’re happy. Good luck with your writing.”
“Thanks,” I said with an unfamiliar calm. My voice didn’t tremble. I didn’t cry, my default emotional response.
He hung up.
Of a 2,499-word essay, 53 focused on my brother. He missed the point of the piece. Or, as my brother often makes me wonder, is it me? Had I missed the point of writing it?
I read and re-read the essay to gauge if I crossed a line and still don’t think I did.
And then, I pretend like you’re in the room, coaxing me: “Have the courage to tell your story as only you can tell it.” I look at your grandfatherly face, the faint outline of a smile on your lips.
Thank you, Mr. Zinsser, for giving me the resolve to write, the pluck to tell my story, and a mantra to repeat every time I face the blank page.