UN­LESS IT MOVES THE HU­MAN HEART The Craft and Art of Writ­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOKWORLD - —Yvonne Zipp book­world@wash­post.com


By Roger Rosen­blatt Ecco. 155 pp. Pa­per­back, $13.99

Mak­ing your liv­ing with words has be­come a pre­car­i­ous pro­fes­sion. The sec­ond-biggest book­store chain in the United States can’t pay its bills. Jobs for jour­nal­ists are dry­ing up faster than grape juice in a Sham-Wow. So stu­dents are flee­ing cre­ative-writ­ing cour­ses, right?

Nope. The num­ber of cre­ative-writ­ing pro­grams has in­creased by 800 per­cent since 1975, writes Roger Rosen­blatt, author of “Un­less It Moves the Hu­man Heart.” (The ti­tle is florid; the rest of the book is not.) “So here we go again — an­other writ­ing class. . . . All over Amer­ica, stu­dents rang­ing in age from their early twen­ties to their eight­ies hun­ker down at sem­i­nar ta­bles . . . avid to join a pro­fes­sion that prac­ti­cally guar­an­tees them re­jec­tion, poverty, and fail­ure.”

For those ea­ger to em­bark on their own jour­ney of down­ward mo­bil­ity, “Un­less It Moves the Hu­man Heart” is right up there with Natalie Gold­berg’s “Writ­ing Down the Bones,” al­though less Zen, and Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” al­though less con­fes­sional. It takes the form of a mem­oir that re-cre­ates classes in which Rosen­blatt and his stu­dents tried to an­swer the ques­tion: Why write?

Rosen­blatt, who lives in Bethesda, sees some­thing heroic and de­fi­ant in his stu­dents, from 22-year-old Jas­mine, who be­lieves that John Donne is over­rated, to 59-year-old Ge­orge, a li­mou­sine driver “cursed with an enor­mous vo­cab­u­lary.” And while ac­knowl­edg­ing “the child­ish ro­man­ti­cism” of the writer, he still be­lieves in the craft’s in­her­ent no­bil­ity. “I have never known a great writer who did not be­lieve in de­cency and right ac­tion,” he writes, “how­ever earnestly he or his char­ac­ters strayed from it.”

If it takes an act of faith to want to be a writer, how much more must it re­quire to teach, as Rosen­blatt has done for 40 years. The Stony Brook Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor has won an Emmy, a Pe­abody and two Polk Awards, and his books in­clude both fic­tion and non­fic­tion best­sellers. So he’s more than qual­i­fied to teach “Writ­ing Ev­ery­thing,” the course de­scribed here.

The book is filled with hu­mor and prac­ti­cal ad­vice — not all of it from Rosen­blatt. One of his stu­dents gave me a new in­sight: “So in ef­fect you be­gin a short story by say­ing, ‘We’ve come to this.’ ” Rosen­blatt also quotes poet Tom Lux, who calls po­etry “mixed feel­ings expressed clearly.”

Rosen­blatt be­lieves in think­ing big and writ­ing small. “I be­lieve in spare writ­ing. Pre­cise and re­strained writ­ing. I like short sen­tences. Frag­mented sen­tences, some­times.” His stu­dents joke that his course more prop­erly could be called Writ­ing Ev­ery­thing Like Him. As read­ers of his poignant mem­oir “Mak­ing Toast” (2010) can at­test, one could do worse.

As he says in the be­gin­ning, Rosen­blatt can’t make his stu­dents pro­fes­sional writ­ers. But he can teach them — and any­one read­ing this book — to write bet­ter.

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