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Simplicity better than sophistication.

Byline: Bob Welch / The Register-Guard

Sophistication is overrated.

When invited to have lunch with writing guru William Zinsser and professors from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication last week, I initially thought of bringing along my copy of what many consider the bible of the craft - his 1976 classic "On Writing Well."

Naw, I told myself, you don't want to look like a star-struck kid in a room full of dignified profs. So there I stood, bookless, while the dignified profs - most in shorts and running shoes - lined up to get autograph after autograph, one man getting Zinsser signatures in three different editions.


I'd forgotten that Eugene isn't like other places. It's a place where pretense is eyed with suspicion and where simplicity - Zinsser's mantra - is honored. A place where a Big Name from New York can come to town to lecture during the Oregon Festival of American Music, and OFAM shares him with the J-school.

"One day Bill's speaking on the history of sheet music, the next on the Pittsburgh Pirates, the next telling our group how he played a taciturn priest in a Woody Allen movie," journalism professor Duncan McDonald said. "This was one of the most wonderful moments here at the school in recent history."

Zinsser, 80, was in town because his book, "Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs," was the inspiration behind OFAM's 2003 event.

He's written 16 books about subjects ranging from jazz to travel to spring training with the Pirates. But he's known best for "On Writing Well," in which he preaches the gospel of bare-bones writing and the sin of excess. "There's no sentence that's too short in the eyes of God," he's written.

A native New Yorker, Zinsser graduated from Princeton, served during World War II and went to work for the same New York Herald Tribune that "I've loved long before I could lift it." Since then, he's written a column for Life magazine, taught at Yale and been editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club. He still teaches writing.

In person, he's much like his ideal sentence: neat, compact and inviting.

"The most important thing about writing is a sense of enjoyment," he said. "I grew up on the New York Herald Tribune and that's what I remember about it - this sense of enjoyment the writers had."

Zinsser obviously enjoys words, written or spoken. On hot dogs: "The frank comes wrapped in its own napkin and is soon gone without a trace. It is the ultimate food of the disposable society." On the essence of writing: "If you think clearly, you'll write clearly. Writing is thinking on paper." On ego-driven writers: "Pomposity is the mortal enemy of the writer. Simple is good."

The best thing he's read recently, he said, was a piece by Andrea Elliott in The New York Times about Latinos in Queens having food that's been cooked by their mothers shipped to them from Latin American countries.

"There was so much humanity in the article," he said. And, he suggested, Elliott obviously enjoyed writing it. "A reader has to feel the writer is feeling good about what he or she's doing."

As Zinsser read the opening of a story he wrote about being an extra in Woody Allen's 1980 movie, "Stardust Memories," I was reminded how he practices what he preaches. After the initial call - from an Allen aide who referred to him as "Bill, honey" - Zinsser is expecting grandeur. Instead, he finds himself standing among dozens of other extras at a New York dump.

"People are desperate for humor," he said.

Zinsser's own humor, as you might expect, is more basic than peanut butter and jelly.

"I don't like to write," he told the lunch crowd. "I like to have written."

And in a few moments he had done just that - in the form of autographs for those who, unlike me, hadn't been cowed by sophistication.

Bob Welch can be reached at 338-2354 or at
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 17, 2003
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