Yet if the dialogue sometimes fails to resemble human speech, it nicely reveals the author’s method. And his method works. The examples Rosenblatt cites are clearly student writing, but you can practically watch his points hitting home — and his lessons sinking in. One class member recalls a childhood road trip in a Chevrolet “huge and blue and packed with promise.” Another equates a busted relationship to a basketball game: “a screech, a shout, a thud on rim, / the pause, the fall.”
Such vignettes are an undogmatic way of delivering what every writing guide must: practical, usable advice on how to write well. And Rosenblatt adds a new vibrancy to the old dictates. Yes, revise, revise and revise again, but even better: “Slash and burn! Bombs away! Our pages ought to look like Dresden.” Pursue uncomfortable subjects, sure, but more colorfully: “Let others go for quilts and hot chocolate. We covet s--- and guillotines.”
All good teaching is performance art, Rosenblatt concedes, but he sensitizes his students to nuance as well. A discussion of O. Henry’s fading reputation leads to a conversation about the distinctions between building anticipation and forcing a surprise ending. “Anticipation is more satisfying,” he explains, “because it allows a thought or feeling to build in your mind, rather than assaulting you with a sudden twist.”
And that’s not just lip service: The book likewise builds a sense of anticipation. Though he spends weeks cultivating an emotional distance from his students, Rosenblatt eventually betrays his clear and genuine affection for them. The floodgates burst in the final pages, where, in a post-semester e-mail to the class, the teacher rhapsodizes about spirit and emotion and the need for writing to, as the book’s title says, move the human heart. (The line comes from poet A. D. Hope: “Nothing you write will matter unless it moves the human heart.”) Rosenblatt exhorts his students to develop a “great soul, capacious, kind, and rational, for only a soul of such quality and magnitude will produce the work you aspire to.”
The Roger Rosenblatt we meet on page 1 of this conversational but useful primer might dismiss such a line as flowery. But the power of the closing pages is a product of all the good lessons he taught in class. The author, like his students, has done the work.
Mark Athitakis is a book reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He also runs the literary blog American Fiction Notes at americanfiction.wordpress.com.