Roger Rosenblatt Answers Your Questions
Editor’s Note: In January, longtime essay contributor Roger Rosenblatt returned to the NewsHour for a conversation with Jeffrey Brown about the craft of writing, a topic that he explores in a new book, “Unless It Moves The Human Heart.” Roger is not just a professional writer, but also a teacher of other writers, and his latest work tells stories from his experiences in the classroom. After that conversation, Art Beat asked you if you had any questions about writing for Roger. And you did. We received hundreds of responses, even questions about specific projects. Unable to answer them all, Roger sought to address some of the most popular themes and questions. Our apologies to those who didn’t get responses, but we thank you for watching, reading and writing in.
Four reasons for writing
The first reason is that writing makes suffering endurable. It does that by showing the beauty in sorrow. Everyone suffers. So what do you n make of it? Nothing could be sadder than Marsha Norman’s Night Mother, her play about a suicide. Yet Marsha’s language, and the fullness of the characters lifts us from the sorrow, and allows us to breathe after it.
Othello offers a demonstration of the second reason – writing makes evil intelligible. Othello himself is kind of a stiff, but Iago is memorable, not because he operates outside human understanding, but rather because he shows that people are capable of anything, evil included.
The third reason – that writing makes justice desirable – hits home with us because we believe in justice, perhaps above all else. And nothing brings us to our knees like an injustice. The play The Winslow Boy shows the accused schoolboy going up against the English government, and winning. His lawyer’s motto is “Let right be done.” It’s all we ask of books, and of life.
The fourth reason is that writing makes love possible. In the hands of a great writer, all the suffering, evil and injustice of the world is overcome and ennobled by love. Read Twain and Dickens if you doubt it.
Viewers wanted to know how to write one, and how to get started. The advice I give my students is not to plant themselves at a desk, but rather to go for a walk, a run, a bike ride — anything to clear their minds, and create a receptive state. Then wait for an image to come to you. An image, not an idea. And an image will come to you, always. I cannot explain why. When it does, follow it, no matter how strange it may seem. It will lead you to a memory, and the memory to something important in yourself. In a way, all writing is personal narrative, because writing validates our lives. The image will lead you to the significant memory, and you’ll be on your way.
Viewers wondered about establishing the right voice for their work. I think voice is a function of subject matter. The first thing one must do is to determine what one’s proposed piece is about. Write a first paragraph. Read it to someone you trust – a spouse, partner, friend. Then have that person ask, “What is this about?” When you can answer that question in a single sentence, you’ll have your voice. By the way, the piece is never about its plot. It’s about what you mean to say by and within the plot.
Viewers asked about what writers should read. My weird answer is, “Everything, and not too much.” Writers should read a lot and a lot of the best. But excessive sophistication can weigh you down. It will diminish your useful ignorance, your innocence to life by providing pre-fab ideas. Read like a selective thief. Choose the works that suit your inclinations. But keep the reading under control. You’re a writer, not a scholar. Expertise will delimit your sense of mystery, which is invaluable to you, and will help to create original language in you.
I mentioned that writing ought to be useful. Viewers wondered how that comes about. They already know the answer. Every time we measure our lives against a line of poetry or the figures of Odysseus, Emma, Lear, Pip, Ahab, or anything else in literature, we are making use of literature. The great writers are usable in every way — practically, morally, aesthetically. And the world is improved or at least propelled by our use of them.
Invention vs. imagination
Viewers wanted to know the difference. Invention is easy. A horse that tap dances, speaks French, and does stand-up is merely an invention. But those horses that Swift created in “Gulliver’s Travels,” the animals who stood for civilization, are the products of inventiveness with a higher purpose. Invention starts and ends with little ideas. Imagination involves a great idea which is applied to smaller things. “Alice in Wonderland” is a work of imagination.
Viewers, many of them teachers, wanted to know how to teach students of the “right word.” I suggest that they find a paragraph or a stanza in a work they admire that contains an exactly right word – one that could not be replaced. Give the passage to your students with that word removed from the text. Leave a blank space. Then ask the students what word they would put in the space. Then ask the students what word they would put in the space. The process of thinking it through, talking about context, tone, etc, should help them learn how to find their own right words.
Viewers wanted to know how to make the didactic beautiful. Don’t think of the lesson you wish to impart. Instead, think of the story that illustrates the lesson. Tell the story as simply as you can. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how beautifully you tell it, and it will contain its own lecture.
Art for art’s sake
Some viewers were concerned that my praise of that idea put me at odds with the betterment or acknowledgment of the outside world. I meant only that my students are devoted to art, not money, and I love that about them. But art at its best is always created in behalf of the outside world. In its finest representations, it addresses all that is wrong with the world, and seeks to correct it. Writing is our cure for the disease of living.
— Roger Rosenblatt