I’ve hadn’t read anything of Roger Rosenblatt’s before, but somehow the name sounded a little familiar when I first saw the book Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing. The title grabbed me. Anyone who has any aspirations to write has, I think, the desire to touch someone else in some way; otherwise we’d just keep private journals.
Rosenblatt has written and won awards for columns, essays, books, and novels. He styled this book as one of his writing classes. These particular students and conversations are fictitious, but I am sure they are drawn from classes he has taught over the years. Neither the book nor the classes are very systematic: he says later in the book what I had already figured out, that he will come to class with a plan but a question from a student will carry the lesson into another direction. The interchanges do seem more like conversations than lessons, but that probably keeps them more interesting. “I may permanently forget whatever it was I originally planned to say. But it is much more exciting to allow oneself to be swung into a new and foreign path, just as in writing when you find yourself in the midst of the strangest sentence, and wonder how you got there” (p. 116).
He does work various principles into the conversations, the main one being restraint (“if you have the goods, there’s no need to dress them up,” p. 88) and “the preference of the noun to the adjective and the verb to the adverb” (p. 148), but even there he admits that “if I had foisted my preference on Keats, there would have been no Keats. And ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ is a …lot more beautiful than ‘dawn’” (p. 131).
The first part of the book had me thinking, “Wow, this is neat! I’d love to attend a class like this.” The second part had me disagreeing with him in spots.
Some of the parts I especially liked:
In a section on short stories, he says, “You know the character and his or her situation from the opening. You even know what’s likely to happen. The story is about why what you know matters” (p. 12). It struck me that in a sense that’s true of even longer stories and books. Something may be completely predictable and yet still be enjoyed because of what matters in the story.
“If we look like we’re trying to change the world, the writing will sink from the weight of its own piety. But in the best of our work, the idealism is there, like trout below the surface of the water. Of course you want to try to change the world. You just don’t want to show your cards. But look at the world. Who would not want to change it? Books count. They disturb people” (p. 59).
“There’s no purpose to writing unless you believe in significant things — right over wrong, good over evil. Your writing may deal with the gray areas between the absolutes, and all the relativities that life requires. But you still need to acknowledge that the absolutes exist, and that you are on the side of the angels” (p. 60).
“Writing is the cure for the disease of living. Doing it may sometimes feel like an escape from the world, but at its best moments it is an act of rescue. Each of you has his own way of seeing into suffering and error. But you share the desire to save the world from its blights by going deeper into them until they lie exposed. You show up the imperfections of living for what they are. You hope to write them out of existence” (p. 60).
Reading good writers “is like hanging around with a superior mind. You can never equal that mind, but you strive to do your best, and not to embarrass yourself in his presence” (p. 92).
Then there were things I wasn’t sure that I agreed with, like the following:
In contrasting writers to journalists, who have to clearly communicate, the author says “There’s a mystery to the art of writing. You write, yet you don’t always understand what you’ve written. And you’re not always understood. And you’re never fully understood. And this is a good thing– dwelling in and creating mysteries” (p. 74). I can see that to some extent, but I’d think even fiction writers want readers to understand what they’re trying to convey. Some of this kind of philosophizing got a little too metaphysical for me.
Likewise he says of a memoir, “A pure memoir meanders without achieving meaning. It avoids meaning — more like fiction that is real” (p. 88). If he means there’s no symbolism, ulterior motives or infused meaning of the writer, etc., I can agree with that. Yet I wouldn’t say there is no meaning, else no one would read it. There has to be some meaning to the life written about, the things the character did and learned. Personally I’ve drawn a lot of meaning — or maybe a better word would be inspiration — from reading biographies.
“A poet tries to identify a situation or an emotion as accurately as possible…At the same time, the poet knows that perfect identification is impossible, I think that’s where imperfection is the same thing as divine” (p. 129-130). Saying that imperfection is divine seems oxymoronic to me.
This a short book at 155 pages and reads easily. I liked the banter between Rosenblatt and his students and the fact that his representative students were a variety of ages, some even older than myself, rather than just college age. It is a secular book, so there are a few words and illustrations that I would personally find offensive but understand their being in a book like this. I enjoyed the variety of other writings that he referred to, some of which I want to explore further. Overall I found some good instruction and a lot of inspiration and food for thought in this book.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)