"Unless It Move the Human Heart" is Roger Rosenblatt's take on the craft of writing

Sunday, January 23, 2011



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.

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