Zinsser, William

Zinsser, William (ed.). Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (1987)

Houghton Mifflin Company, 166 pages, $16.95 hardcover

ISBN 0-395-44526-4


This book originated as a series of talks sponsored by the Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc., and presented at The New York Public Library in the winter of 1986. The book contains a memoir and introduction by William Zinsser, along with sections by Russell Baker, Annie Dillard, Alfred Kazin, Toni Morrison, and Lewis Thomas.


In his introductory section, "Writing and Remembering," Zinsser says that for this series of talks

"Memoir" was defined as some portion of a life. Unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, omitting nothing significant, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it. The writer of a memoir takes us back to a corner of his or her life that was unusually vivid or intense—childhood, for instance—or that was framed by unique events. By narrowing the lens, the writer achieves a focus that isn't possible in autobiography; memoir is a window into a life. (p. 21)


Other scholars writing about memoir would not agree with Zinsser about the distinction between autobiography and memoir; most use the two terms synonymously. Most, though, would probably agree with some of Zinsser's other generalizations:

  • "…a good memoir is also a work of history, catching a distinctive moment in the life of both a person and a society" (p. 22).

  • "Ego is at the heart of all the reasons why anybody writes a memoir, whether it's a book or a pamphlet or a letter to our children. Memoir is how we validate our lives" (p. 24).

  • "One central point emerged: the writer of a memoir must become the editor of his own life. He must cut and prune an unwieldy story and give it a narrative shape. His duty is to the reader, not himself" (p. 24).

This last point, about narrative shape, emerges most clearly in Russell Baker's section entitled "Life with Mother." Baker says that he finally decided to write the story of his childhood when his mother experienced what he calls a living death: her "mind went out one day as though every circuit in the city had been blown" (p. 40). Being a good journalist, he interviewed all his elderly family members and wrote a long manuscript in which everything was dutifully recorded, annotated and referenced. It was a good piece of journalism but an awful story. When Baker finally realized that the significance hinged on the story of a boy and his mother, he rewrote the entire manuscript. The new version became Growing Up, which is among the best known and most loved of American memoirs.


Annie Dillard also emphasizes the notion of memoir as an account crafted to express an idea, part of a genre she calls literary nonfiction: "…nonfiction accounts may be literary insofar as the parts of their structures cohere internally, insofar as the things are in them for the sake of the work itself, and insofar as the work itself exists in the service of idea" (p. 73). 


© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown



All material on these pages is © as indicated by Mary Daniels Brown