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The Rocky Path to Writerdom

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

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.

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