Unless It Moves the Human Heart

Unless It Moves
the Human Heart

The Craft and Art of Writing

Roger Rosenblatt

For Jim and Kate Lehrer,

writers, teachers, friends

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

M
ark
T
wain

B
efore you read this book, I must confess a fraud. What I present as a word-for-word account of the conversations that went on in my writing classes at Stony Brook University in the winter/spring of 2008 is fiction, top to bottom. I would like to have recalled verbatim all the marvelous things that I and my dozen students said over the course of the semester, but my mind, hardly a steel trap, recalls only the problems and subjects we discussed. To be clear: nobody really said what I say he said in class. But the ideas expressed here were expressed there. The samples of student writings are genuine. And the students themselves were just as gifted, lovable, and annoying as I have drawn them.

J
asmine, Inur, and Kristie took my Modern Poetry class last semester. Nina took that class with me last spring. George, Suzanne, Diana, and Veronique took my workshop in novel-writing, also last spring. Of the others in the room, I recognize only Robert, who is a graduate student in our MFA writing program. He also owns two of the better restaurants in the area—Robert’s in Water Mill and the Paradise in Sag Harbor. As soon as I spot him, it occurs that I might inveigle him into holding the class party at Robert’s, for free. I mention this brainstorm as I call the roll. He maintains an amused but noncommittal expression. Ana, Donna, and Sven, like Robert, have not taken classes with me before and appear both more polite and more apprehensive than the others. I try to make everyone feel as uncomfortable as possible.

“Why do you want to take this class, Jasmine?” I ask the twenty-two-year-old. “To learn to write like John Donne?” She smiles demurely. Last semester, in Modern Poetry, she piped up out of the blue: “I don’t like John Donne.” In forty years of teaching literature and writing courses, I had never heard anyone say such a thing. This slight, composed, reserved graduate student, with the high voice of a little girl, had assaulted the sacred. “He has nothing original to say,” she said. I told her, “Even if that were so, don’t you think he gets credit for the way he said it?” She looked away, faintly bored. I hated to admit that she may have had a point, which still will not prevent me from needling her from now on.

This course I call Writing Everything. My students spend the term writing a short story, an essay, and some poems. We meet once a week for two hours. The original idea of the course was to determine the principal strengths of each of the forms, then see how each might be of use in writing any of the others. Most MFA students plan to write fiction, so I thought that, in addition to short stories, they would profit from trying poems, to concentrate on original language, and essays, to develop ideas. It turned out that those expectations were too rigid, and I learned it was better to say less about the individual properties of the forms, and simply allow the students to enjoy writing something different.

They sit at the seminar table in a classroom at the Stony Brook Southampton campus, on eastern Long Island, writing pads before them and pens poised, on the chance that I might say something interesting. It is the last week of January 2008, the beginning of spring term. The room, a cubed trapezium made up of sharp corners and angles, is a little too bright, with floor-to-ceiling windows that admit the fierce winter sunlight. Even on cloudy days the white walls and the white tiled ceiling reflect light. The floor is gray, with a design of little sand-yellow squares. Two long egg-box cases of fluorescent bulbs hang from wires ten feet above the seminar table, also white. The table is composed of four smaller tables pressed together in a rectangle, about six by twelve feet. I sit at one end with Kristie beside me. I think she has claimed the position for purposes of hectoring. George and Suzanne, husband and wife, sit at the opposite end, with the others arranged four on each side of the table. Twelve is a very good number for a writing class, as it is for juries and apostles. The chairs, some type of plastic, are construction-paper blue. There is one blackboard—green in this case—behind me, and another on the wall to my left. Occasionally faint hammering and the whine of an electric saw can be heard from outside, as this, the newest of the Stony Brook University campuses, is still being worked on. But the room has a quiet feel, and something about its aggressive sterility works in favor of creative minds.

“Isn’t this class supposed to meet for
three
hours?” asks Ana. “That’s what it says in the course catalog.”

“It does say that. But I can’t take the sight of students for that long. Even two hours is stretching it.”

“We’ll report you to the dean,” says Sven.

“Please do. But if you would like to stay here for three hours every week, be my guest. I leave after two.”

I have a good feeling about this class. I’m going to like them. Liking a class is more practically useful than it sounds. In a likable class, discussions are freer, more open. When the students like one another, they take everyone’s work more seriously. In another class I taught, after a woman read a section of her novel aloud, another woman asked, “May I be your friend?” The first woman answered, “You already are.” The students will also feel safe with one another, and will trust the group with personal information they use in their writing. In my novel-writing workshop, a student wrote about a woman who was taking care of her husband, whose mind was deteriorating. She too was deteriorating from the effort. She told her story as a novel, but the students understood it was her own. They respect such disclosures. They unite with one another like a noisy brood of brothers and sisters. And they can always unite against me.

“What if we stay for the third hour and discover we don’t need you?” asks Robert.

“Win-win.”

Sometimes they protect one another. One of the first things teachers learn to look for in students’ writing is the subject of suicide. A student in that same novel-writing workshop ended his book with the hero walking into the ocean after having slit his wrists with seashells. A woman in the class came to my office hours to say she was concerned about the suicide ending. Did I think something was troubling the student? I talked to him after class, and he seemed fine. But the impressive thing was his fellow student’s alertness, which stemmed from affection. Writing programs do not actively promote such careful attentiveness, but the fact that every life counts is built into the work we do. I think the students pick up on this.

This year’s group come from very different backgrounds, and are widely diverse in experiences and in ages. All this should make them more interesting to one another. I remind them that they comprise the only audience of readers they need worry about for the present. They will read one another’s work, and comment on it. I want them to know, “You’ll never have a situation like this again. Writing is a lonely enterprise. Here, in these classes, you have colleagues, people who share everything with you and wish you well.” I urge them to be severe and exacting in their comments. “I’ll never let you be harsh, though I doubt you ever would be. And I promise: in all my years of teaching, I’ve never had to referee a fistfight.” This is a half-lie. Some years ago I had a really good student writer, a kid from the streets, who was built like a frozen roast and rode to class on a Harley. He could not take criticism, and fought with me over every correction I made on his work, beyond the point of reason. Years later he sent me a letter allowing that I may have been right about a thing or two. But there was one class meeting where things got so hot between us, we nearly came to blows, which would have been bad news for me.

Donne-hating Jasmine grew up in Babylon, Long Island, went to Stony Brook as an undergraduate, and by her own admission, has had no experience in anything. Her mother is from St. Lucia, her father from Hempstead, New York.

Inur’s family, originally from Uzbekistan, settled in Pakistan, then emigrated here. She is twenty-four, Muslim, beautiful, and a terrible reader of her own work. Every sentence turns up in a Valley-girl question. I kid her about this without mercy, but it doesn’t help.

Kristie, who also grew up on Long Island, plays the flute and has worked at a farm stand. At twenty-two, she still looks like a sweet and gawky schoolgirl. She bubbles with life, asks questions unremittingly, and describes herself, inaccurately, as my biggest pain in the ass. Kristie, Inur, and Jasmine are very tight. After the Modern Poetry course last year at the Stony Brook main campus, the three of them followed me to Southampton. I ask them what I did wrong. They gang up on me whenever there’s an opening.

Suzanne, in her early sixties, is slim, with a narrow face engulfed in flaming red hair. She was reared in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn in a neighborhood of Quonset huts, and still has Brooklyn in her voice. Born to a nonreligious Irish family, she became a practicing Catholic on her own.

Her husband, George, fifty-nine, has the body of a pro-football nose tackle, his girth held in check by his six-foot-two-inch height. He dresses in black. George grew up in a German Catholic community. A year and a half ago, while tracing his lineage, he learned his family was Jewish. In the 1930s, they had converted for self-protection. “Of course we’re Jewish,” relatives told him casually at a family gathering. “Everyone knows that!”

Sven, thirty-three, was reared by his mother, an Austrian. His father, from Norway, died when Sven was two. Sven is reserved and solid, the sort of guy you want on your side. After graduating from the Air Force Academy, he spent five years as an Air Force pilot, flying C-17 cargo planes into Iraq and Afghanistan. As a kid he studied art.

Ana, seventy-one, is petite, with short dark hair and dancing eyes. She was born in London and reared in Argentina, before her family moved here. Her father was a UN diplomat. She speaks with an aristocratic intonation, but is no snob. She went to Smith.

And there is fifty-four-year-old Robert, who is blue-collar handsome, like Dana Andrews. His solemn expression accompanies a quiet wit and a sardonic sense of humor. His family is rooted in Long Island, though now he makes his home in Manhattan with his girlfriend and their nine-year-old son, and commutes to his restaurants. He has worked in the business since leaving Queens College, and writes articles on golf on the side.

And Diana, twenty-three, who was a varsity gymnast at SUNY Cortland. Bright-eyed, with black hair and a clear, clipped way of speaking, she is everyone’s pesky, adorable kid sister. She is five feet tall and boasts that she can high-jump four feet, eight inches. She is working on her first novel, begun with me last term.

And Nina, fifty-seven, small and graying, with a lovely, scholarly look. She went to Bucknell, got her MLS at NYU, and became a librarian. Her mother was Swiss. Her father, Italian, was the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner. She took care of her parents at the end of their lives. Nina is what John Steinbeck calls an “inside-herself woman.” In the Modern Poetry class, she wrote a brilliant paper on Seamus Heaney in the form of a parody of a Heaney poem.

And Veronique, forty-three, who went to American University, and is a former photojournalist for the
New York
Post.
Her parents came here from France and she grew up speaking French. She has French eyes, mixing wisdom and anxiety. Her fellow students know her to be gracious and kind.

And Donna, forty-nine, efficient, with a pretty and purposeful face, who majored in philosophy at Stony Brook, and got her degree while her three children were growing up. As a young woman, she worked for Izod and Ralph Lauren. She sketches, and gardens. She wants to write essays on the environment. Her husband sells golf balls.

Who among them will turn out to be the better writers? Who will have a voice like no other’s, an original stance, a different way of apprehending the world? And who will have the patience and stamina, the seriousness of purpose, to make the most of his or her gifts? Who will recognize that writing is hard labor,
work
? When I started teaching writing courses in my twenties, as the Briggs-Copeland Instructor at Harvard, there were students in my class whose successful futures seemed assured because they had both talent and will. Frank Rich, Mark Helprin—I hardly taught them as much as I stood back and cheered. Yet there was one young woman, the daughter of a federal judge, who was better than the lot of them, born with perfect pitch of language and the quiet authority of Anne Tyler. Like Tyler, too, she had something to say. Yet, for whatever reasons, she did not want to be a writer. Writing was just something she did well. Years after she studied with me, I bumped into her in a supermarket in Cambridge. “Did you keep up the writing?” I asked her. She shook her head without apology. “You were my most talented student,” I said. She smiled and shrugged.

So here we go again—another writing class, like tens of thousands occurring around the country. While programs in English literature have withered in the last twenty-five years, because of a useless competition of various critical approaches, and also probably to an exhaustion of the material, writing programs have burgeoned. Since 1975, the number of creative writing programs has increased 800 percent. It is amazing. The economy has tanked. Publishing favors nonfiction. Young people seem to prefer the image to the word. Yet all over America, students ranging in age from their early twenties to their eighties hunker down at seminar tables like this one in Iowa, California, Texas, Massachusetts, New York, and hundreds of other places, avid to join a profession that practically guarantees them rejection, poverty, and failure. All who have taught in our program—Jules Feiffer, Billy Collins, Meg Wolitzer, Robert Reeves, Ursula Hegi, Marsha Norman, Frank McCourt, Lou Ann Walker, Patty Marx, Melissa Bank, Matt Klam, Kaylie Jones, Julie Sheehan, David Rakoff, and others—dutifully remind the students of their likely fate, but they come to us in hordes anyway.

I look around the table at my dozen hopefuls, a
Chorus Line
without a star to support—smart, good-natured, talented people who yearn to forge a life from their imaginations. Writing students look different from other students. No matter how old they are, they have a childish romanticism to them, as do professional writers—sometimes self-destructive, but also touching. Ana, sophisticated as she is, has the face of a young girl about to take in her first Broadway play. George, big as he is, looks like a puppy eager for approval. They all want the world of writing so very much—not only to succeed in it, but to be part of it, to stroll in it and feel it wrap around them. I admire their brash impracticality and wonder if, in some way, their reckless enthusiasm for art, conceived and nurtured in an increasingly money-driven age, represents their unconscious protest against the age. I never heard my students say such a thing, or indicate in any way that they thought themselves heroic for beating oars against the tide. If anything, they make a show of bemoaning the lovely madness of their desire. Yet there are so many of them—the continuing multiplication of all the nation’s writing programs—I can’t help but think that something deliberate and stubborn lies behind their decision to make artists of themselves. They turn to the power of their powerlessness, not unlike Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, Ludvík Vaculík, and the other writers of the Eastern Bloc who had nothing but words to rebel with.

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