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The Rocky Path to Writerdom

Roger Rosenblatt’s guide for aspiring writers delivers tough love and timeless advice

Book Review:

Want to become a writer?

Here’s a tip: Books about writing will encourage you — to pursue another line of work, that is.

In her memoir, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard equates authors to inchworms in agony, oblivious to what they are doing or where they are going.

In Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth, his memoir about his early struggles as a writer, the author warns, "You have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days."

And in the first line of her short story "How to Become a Writer," Lorrie Moore utters the most discouraging words of all: "First, try to be something, anything, else."

Now one more scribbler has hopped aboard the disenchantment bandwagon — but he has customized it with features of hope. In his new book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart, veteran journalist and playwright Roger Rosenblatt chronicles his experience teaching a class called Writing Everything at Stony Brook University in 2008. His first question is whether his students are prepared to write anything: “Who will recognize that writing is hard labor, work?” he asks himself. But the class members slowly gain that recognition, and what follows is the revealing if occasionally cantankerous diary of a foreman admiring the work of his crew — and marveling at how much of their own creation they had to tear down in order to complete it.

You can’t finish this book without buying into Rosenblatt’s premise of literature as labor. But there’s joy in his story too, as he presents the subtle pleasures of our obsession with words. For all his hardheadedness, Rosenblatt has constructed a lively, thoughtful and ultimately encouraging manual, one that celebrates the moments when writers are at their best — which is to say their most honest.

It helps that, unlike many similar books, Unless It Moves the Human Heart — subtitled The Craft and Art of Writing — does not limit itself to a single voice. Its chapters are framed by classroom discussions between Rosenblatt and his dozen students of all backgrounds, ages and skills. (Among them are the 71-year-old daughter of a U.N. diplomat and a 57-year-old librarian with a soft spot for modern poetry, as well as several students as young as 22.) As they cover the traits that distinguish a good personal essay, short story or poem, the author jumps in with the occasional Olympian pronouncement about what makes for good writing. “I believe in spare writing,” he notes. “Precise and restrained writing. I like short sentences. Fragmented sentences, sometimes.”

But he always lets his students steer the conversation. Like the wise improv comic who says yes to any scenario, Rosenblatt makes it a point to find “something valuable in every comment students made, no matter how far off the mark it might be.” This yields some open, funny exchanges. Parsing a student paragraph overstuffed with modifiers, for example, Rosenblatt is sarcastic but genial: “Okay, George. You tell me what’s wrong with this. We only have a week.” George sounds contrite — but enlightened: “I do get it, you know. Sometimes I can’t help myself.”

In the book’s preface, Rosenblatt fesses up that not every classroom conversation rendered here is verbatim. This may explain why some of the student comments sound suspiciously, er, writerly: “The rote practice of reading aloud confused me completely, further eroding my already meager confidence,” one student allegedly remarks.

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