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Journalist, Author Roger Rosenblatt Outlines His 4 Reasons to Write

January 31, 2011 at 6:36 PM EDT
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Roger Rosenblatt -- novelist, playwright, journalist and, of course, NewsHour essayist for many years -- also teaches writing. His latest book, "Unless It Moves The Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing," is a based on a class he teaches called "Writing Everything." He spoke with Jeffrey Brown about his advice to writers.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: the art of writing.

Recently, I discussed that with someone familiar to our NewsHour audience. Here’s our conversation.

What makes good writing? Can it be taught? And, by the way, why write in the first place? Such questions are asked throughout a new book entitled “Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing.” It follows a teacher and students through a semester of a class called “Writing Everything.”

The teacher and author of this book is Roger Rosenblatt, novelist, playwright, journalist, professor at Stony Brook University and of course for many years, essayist for the NewsHour.

Welcome back.

ROGER ROSENBLATT, Author, “Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing”: Thank you.

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JEFFREY BROWN: All right, you gaze at the faces of students on the first day of class. Even before you begin, what is it you hope to accomplish? What — what do you — what do you — what do — what can you or anybody do?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I can — I can help them write better. I can’t make them into professional writers. And I think there’s that understanding, particularly with advanced students, the ones I teach.

But I can, through a variety of small parts and then maybe some bigger ideas, turn them into better writers than they are, and perhaps — and this is a kind of other — other motive — an appreciation of the world they’re entering, which I regard at any rate as a very important world.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s as much as the actual mechanics of writing?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yes. The — the — the things that — the parts that I can let them appreciate or lead them to appreciate are very easy, that the noun is important, that it carries its own power. Emerson called it the speaking language of things — to find the right word.

Twain said the difference between the word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. And I tell them, we’re in the lightning business.

(LAUGHTER)

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I tell them always to say — if any critic says that you meant something, even if you never intended it, always to say you did mean it, so as to take credit for that.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: And other — and a — and a variety of serious and less serious things that go into the weird profession that we’re about.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, you cite in here the fact that fewer people seem to read, right? Bookstores are in trouble. English literature classes are cut back at a lot of universities, but writing classes have flourished over the last few decades.

Why is that?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I have no idea, except I must say that I find it very touching, quite beautiful, that the only reason for the pursuit of art for these students is for art’s sake.

Nobody publishes fiction anymore. The economy has tanked. As you suggest, all the things argue against it. And yet I look out over my students — and all teachers of writing in the country look out over their classes of students — and see people ready and eager to give themselves to art, for no real purpose other than art itself.

And that is — that is very heartening. It’s very impressive.

JEFFREY BROWN: And who are they? I mean, you — you spend the first chapter going through the — so I know who they are. But, I mean, generally, who are they and what are they seeking? And you — and you have been doing this a long time. Do you see differences today?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: When I started to teach — and I started to teach at Harvard, and they were all undergraduates then. And it was slightly different, because it didn’t have the professionalism that — that the kinds of courses I’m teaching now do have.

Now they either come directly from college or they’re people who have worked 40 years and then decided, I always wanted to write.

It isn’t — I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a hobbyist activity among them. They would have had to establish a certain level of proficiency. But that level comes at any time. There is no clock attached to being a writer. Actually, you never learn to be a writer. So, the — the students…

JEFFREY BROWN: You never learn, but here you are in a class teaching, right?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yes. I mean, it’s not a professional school. It’s not law school or medical school. It’s an amateur school. It’s a school, meaning amateur in the sense of love in the word amateur, people who love the work and — and want to pursue it.

And every writer knows that when — with every new thing, it’s as if you’re starting all over again. And I think they appreciate that in — in their teachers. And we certainly appreciate it in them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And your — your — your teaching style, you know, the criticism versus praise, explain how you — how you dole that out.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I have learned over the years — I think I have only become a good teacher of writing in the last 15 years, but I have learned over the years that praise is very important, that a constant badgering of students gets you nowhere and it only makes them afraid.

But, if you — if you encourage more than you discourage, then eventually the — the water rises. I remember having teachers who discouraged, and they were very effective. But, in the long run, I think it’s better to kid them, to fool around with them, and also to — to make them think, which is true, that what they’re doing is extremely important and that their lives are very important.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, one of the — one — ultimately, of course, it raises the question I asked in the intro here, why write? You’re a professional writer. You must have established why you write.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I have been thinking about this question now…

(LAUGHTER)

ROGER ROSENBLATT: … along with the book and other — and other things. And I came up with four reasons.

We write to make suffering endurable, evil intelligible, justice desirable and love possible. And I can elaborate on those things.

But the most important is love. That after all the suffering, all the injustice, all the evil that one sees in the world, if you can rise above it and make it beautiful, and thus lovable then that’s worth a life.

JEFFREY BROWN: You also, in the final — in the final section, in your advice to students, you — you say, what they write — quote — “must be useful to the world.”

That’s a — I mean, that’s an interesting — that’s a sort of high bar to put to people, right?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I think it’s the only standard that after all — all the parts are put together, and I give them that they should strive for anticipation, rather than surprise, imagination, rather than invention, and various specific things, and to write with precision and restraint.

When all the parts are in place, why do you do it? You do it to make the world better. Who would not want to make the world better? And, so, that is the ultimate definition of being useful.

JEFFREY BROWN: It also of course raises the question, why teach?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Writing is a terribly lonely and self-interested enterprise.

And to be able to walk into a class where it’s only — your only purpose is to give yourself to others for an hour or two every week is in fact useful to us.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the last thing is — and — and it’s actually the very first thing in the book — which is you’re — you’re walking through a class, right? And you have the give-and-take of students, but you say at the beginning that this is something of a fraud.

I mean, you — you have — it didn’t quite happen the way you have written it out here.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: You mean in the book?

JEFFREY BROWN: The book.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Oh, no, as I — I…

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this is an act of creative writing on your — on your…

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Oh, absolutely. As I tell the students, they could never have been either as funny or as smart as I have made them out to be.

(LAUGHTER)

ROGER ROSENBLATT: And I never would have remembered the specific things.

But they are a wonderful group of people. And, as I say in the introduction, they are as lovable and gifted and as annoying as I have drawn them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how did they — how did they take what…

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Do I care?

(LAUGHTER)

ROGER ROSENBLATT: No, they — they seemed to like it.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Before I let you go, you have offered anybody in our audience who wants to write in and — questions about writing, any questions they have about writing…

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: … you’re going to take them.

So, I’m going to direct people to send their questions to Art Beat. Go to Art Beat on — online. Roger will get them and — and answer, right?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I will do my best, sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Roger Rosenblatt’s new book is “Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing.”

Thanks a lot.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Thank you.