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