The Beauty of Bibliography in William Zinsser’s Inventing the Truth

Editor's note: This post is the second in a series about books by nonfiction writer and teacher William Zinsser. In a previous post, we covered On Writing Well, and in upcoming posts, we'll cover Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher and Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past.

On a visit to New York last week, I met up with a friend who just began her study of literary nonfiction in Columbia University's MFA program in creative writing. She had that new student glow, as if born again to literature and learning and maybe even life.

“Will you share your reading lists with me?” I asked greedily. I envied her subway commute reading time, her newfound focus on a large-scale writing project, and the support she will feel from a stimulating community of teachers and peers.

Envy tells you what you want, I’ve heard, so my next logical step would be to apply to graduate school for nonfiction writing, right?

Not so fast -- been there, done that.

I finished my own MFA in creative writing with a concentration in nonfiction at The New School in 2006. I still have the paper syllabi from those years stored in a box dozens of states away from where I now live, but they’re too remote, too dusty. I want it fresh.

If I can’t recreate the student experience (and expense) of walking with a buzzing head and heart from a university classroom to its library, charged with urgency at everything I need to read, I want to climb inside William Zinsser’s book Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, which I’ve just discovered.

In its pages, Zinsser, who has been an instructor of writing at both Columbia and The New School and still teaches privately at 90 years old, introduces and collects wisdom from nine masters of the craft of memoir. It includes these writers illuminating their own work: Russell Baker on Growing Up; Jill Ker Conway on The Road from Coorain; Annie Dillard on An American Childhood; Ian Frazier on Family; Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Colored People; Alfred Kazin on A Walker in the City; Frank McCourt on Angela's Ashes; Toni Morrison on Beloved; and Eileen Simpson on Poets in Their Youth.

The first edition (1987) grew out of a series of New York Public Library talks curated by Zinsser, in which he asked visiting writers to explain how a specific memoir came to be written. In an updated edition, its original contributions (by Baker, Dillard, Kazin, and Morrison) are bolstered by edited transcriptions of interviews with Ker Conway,  Simpson, Gates, Frazier, and McCourt.

The book's value, beyond its micro and macro advice about working within the genre, lies overwhelmingly in the bibliography at its end. Zinsser asked the authors to provide "an informal list of first-person narratives or other works that influenced them." As Stephen King has so simply put it, "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." For a fraction of the cost of a graduate degree, this book will allow you to access one of the most generous reading lists I have ever encountered. It will keep you going for years.

The view from inside the bibliography is almost overwhelming, like looking at a huge sky and feeling that if you can really understand even one cloud, that’s something. Or standing before a masterpiece in a museum and knowing that you’ll need to come back when the crowds are gone, and you can truly take it in. Like an old friend, it is an endlessly fascinating gift to revisit.