Roger Rosenblatt, Unless It Moves the Human Heart; The Craft and Art of Writing (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 155pp.
What is it about writing that has packed writing classes around the country? Perhaps meaning-making through story-telling is what separates man from beast, suggests Roger Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt has taught writing courses for over forty years, since his days at Harvard when he was in his twenties. His dozen books have earned him numerous prizes and national recognition. This book is part memoir and part writing manual, as Rosenblatt recounts a one semester writing class that he taught at Stony Brook University's Southampton campus on Long Island in 2008 called "Writing Everything."
His twelve students didn't write everything, of course, although they discussed almost everything. The class required them to write a short story, an essay, and some poetry. As we meet the individual students and read some of their work, Rosenblatt teases out what makes for good writing. There's "throat-clearing," which is about getting started and not overwriting or trying to sound learned, clever, or beautiful. There are writing rituals, like taking a walk, and writing exercises, like singing "Happy Birthday to You" and then pinging off the memories that song evokes. Discovering your own voice and exploring the relationship between reading and writing round out the slender volume.
"Nothing you write will matter unless it moves the human heart," wrote A.D. Hope (151), and thus the title of the book. I was glad that I read this book, but it reminded me of others that I thought were more helpful. There's the classic Elements of Style by Strunk and White. I've also enjoyed The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and then a collection of essays called Shouts and Whispers; Twenty-One Writers Speak About Their Writing and Their Faith.