Unless It Moves the Human Heart
The Craft and Art of Writing
by Roger Rosenblatt
Ecco, 176 pp., $13.99
Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French editor of Elle, suffered a massive stroke and could move only his left eyelid. Yet so great was his desire to tell his story that he dictated a memoir by moving his eyelid to signal individual letters of the alphabet to his secretary. Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (later made into a movie) testifies to one man’s persistence. It also exemplifies man’s innate need to tell stories.
Stories are indispensable to our being, insists Roger Rosenblatt, who includes the account of Bauby’s efforts here. Unless It Moves the Human Heart is not so much a writing handbook as a meditation on why we need stories, and how to write a good one. People think of themselves as rational animals, Rosenblatt says; but given the senseless things that most of us do, he isn’t sure that we’re necessarily so rational. He is sure, however, that we are wired for narrative. Humans love stories and have listened to or invented them from their earliest days, and because of the importance of stories, we need “those self-elected few who are the chief storytellers and keep the race alive and kicking.”
Rosenblatt wants to help those self-elected few improve, and having spent 40-plus years teaching writing, he knows his subject. Does the world need another treatise on writing? The market is glutted with modern classics: On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, and the perennial favorite, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Perhaps anticipating objections, Rosenblatt seeks to carve his own niche, and for this book he reconstructs individual classes with graduate students studying in SUNY Stony Brook’s MFA program. Each chapter contains details of time, place, and people. The author notes the green “blackboard” and describes the placement of the windows with the winter, then spring, sun lighting the room. He names his students, provides some background information, and shows their positions as they sit facing each other at a rectangular table.
The course, entitled “Writing Everything,” focuses on short stories, essays (which he calls the story of an idea), and poems (the story of an emotion). He includes discussions of classics, such as James Joyce’s “Clay,” writing workshops, student questions and comments (some cogent, others inane), as well as his own observations about “the craft and art of writing.” Always insightful, such observations sometimes border on the mystical, as when Rosenblatt muses on the mystery of good teaching or the power of a classic story, or on great writers who “consult[ed] their souls before their pens touched paper.” His warm style and careful writing generally succeed, but it’s sometimes hard to care about a group of individuals one has never met—even with the author’s best efforts to bring these students to life.
Yet here is helpful advice on almost everything from finding an agent (they are indispensable) to the importance of a good editor (“they will tell you what you meant to say”). Rosenblatt discusses writing ledes and how most student writers suffer from “bouts of throat-clearing—overwriting and hesitating at the beginning of a piece” instead of starting with information that will propel the story (and readers) forward. Grab them right away, Rosenblatt insists: “[T]ell them that nothing in their lives matters as much as listening to your story.” There are even cures for writer’s block: Drink coffee, paddle a kayak, ride a bike, do something “outside yourself,” and then a thought—a word—will arrive and get you started. Some observations are practical—prefer clean, clear sentences that rely on nouns and verbs—and others are very nearly poetic: “[I]n fiction you treat facts differently. You dream into them and make them works of art.” In a final letter to students, Rosenblatt summarizes his lessons and, invoking A. D. Hope, speaks of writing as religion: “Nothing you write will matter unless it moves the human heart.”
Rosenblatt directs most of his advice to students, but offers insights to instructors as well. Make sure your ideas about writing don’t harden into orthodoxy. Be creative; don’t stick with a preordained lesson plan. Go with the student’s needs. Locking yourself into set patterns would be foolish, misleading, and boring: “There is no point to a writing course if the students do not write better at the end of it than they did at the beginning.” Such advice seems obvious, and probably is; but the message, often lost in the crush of syllabi, students, assignments, grades, deadlines, and portfolios, is essential and ought to be posted in every English department in the land.