Notes on Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing by Roger Rosenblatt

Direct quotations from the book and John Kendall's reading notes



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When I first read Rosenblatt's "The Man in the Water," a column at the end of an issue of Time magazine, shortly after an ice-laden jet crashed into a bridge while attempting to take off at Dulles Airport in Washington, perhaps 25 years ago, I thought, "there may be no one 'perfect essay,' but this is a modern-day example of one I should show my A.P. Writing students each year." Rosenblatt focused on four people, a driver who stopped and risked his life trying to pull people out of the icy Potomac River from the shore; two helicopter pilots who first reached the scene, and also risked their lives, lowering their craft close enough to the water to use a winch to fish people out and ferry them to shore, on repeated trips; and an unidentified man, a surviving passenger from the jet, who was lucid enough to repeatedly put the harness from the helicopter around less able passengers, until eventually, on the fourth or fifth trip, the man had disappeared beneath the Potamac. Rosenblatt captured a everyday act of extraordinary heroism with objectivity and detachment that still brings tears to my eyes. He portrays the guy, not as a war hero or a Senator or a famous scientist, but someone who simply represented the best of humanity, under the worst possible circumstances.

Nota Bene: My younger daughter, Sarah, used this article for a project for Circe Dunnell's class, in which she had to construct a three-dimensional diorama, with a narrative thread to it.

Anyway, when I saw Amazon suggesting "this is a book you might like," (don't you hate it when the algorithm is right, time after time?), I was immediately intrigued. The Publisher's Weekly blurb stated: "Culled from his experiences teaching writing workshops, novelist, essayist, and longtime professor Rosenblatt (Making Toast) tackles the "why"--not the "how"--of writing by chronicling his winter/spring 2008 semester of "Writing Everything," wherein students discuss and write short stories, essays, and poetry. Chapters include these students' work; Rosenblatt's humor, wit, and wisdom; and classroom discussions of questions both obvious (how does a story differ from an essay?) and remarkably precise (how does James Joyce convey so much in the first sentence of "Clay" and what does it all mean?). The author repeatedly points out that he cannot teach his students to be professional writers, but rather to simply write better than they did before. Less a how-to book than a measured reflection on teaching, the work nonetheless offers aspiring writers many concrete suggestions (let your nouns do the work; go for imagination over invention; write with "restraint, precision, and generosity"). And the oft-invoked words of other authors should resonate with readers and writers alike."

The epigram which begins the book is an old Mark Twain favorite: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning but and the lightning." The book is a kind of case study, with a light of class dialogue and interaction between college professor and his dozen or so students.

CHAPTER ONE : US (p. 1)

page 5: "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." (a nice goal for writing classes at Prep, too.)

p. 13 cites Shelley, in his "Defense of Poetry," saying "we must learn to imagine what we know" and the poet Tom Lux, "poetry is mixed feelings expressed clearly."

p. 14 He's a big fan of writing the first draft in long-hand, of not immediately rushing to the word processor "It's better for us to cross out the wrong words or phrases or sentences, and be able to see the wreckage by the side of the road as we go along. Cover the work with X's. Slash and burn! Our pages out to look like Dresden."

p. 15 He tells his student to "favor imagination over invention. Invention is easy. 'A three-eared camel who speaks French and studies international diplomacy is one thing. But a real camel—humped and diva-eyed—is really strange."

p. 16 Richard Wilbur: "the power of the genie comes from its living in a bottle." Then Rosenblatt adds: "Write your pieces as you would write your lives—with restraint, precision, generosity toward every point of view including the wicked ones, and in the service of significant subject matter."

CHAPTER TWO : THROAT CLEARING (p. 21)

p. 22 I liked his metaphor of "throat clearing": Most of my students suffer bouts of throat-clearing—overwriting and hesitating at the beginning of a piece, instead of plunging in." Too much time looking at blank paper or a blank screen, cursor blinking at them, instead of putting words down, as Ken Macrorie would urge.

p. 26-27 I could also identify with his reassuring himself that even after he had taught material numerous times, he would still be excited about it. "Teaching takes a lot of wheedling and grappling, but basically it is the art of seduction. Observing a teacher who is lost in the mystery of the material can be oddly seductive."

good section in this chapter about how students begin a piece of writing. p. 29: "Think of your story as a house with a thousand doors. You may enter your house from any one of its doors, but only done door is right for your story."

p. 30 The starting point is "the place where you think the story will unfold most completely and with greatest impact."

"Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning, " says George Eliot.

p. 31: He quotes Kafka: "You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has not choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet."

p. 34 "The trouble with using an outline is that you'll follow it." (referring to a short story, here) "You'll cover everything you've put down in one portion of your outline, all the while aiming for what you've put in the following portion. All you'll be doing is reading a road map. You'll never surprise yourself with a sudden turn."

p. 36 "The trick for a lot of writers is to create a state of mind where you are not thinking about writing. Rather create a state of reverie, a dream state. Drams are where other people escape from reality. But for the writer, dreams are reality."

p. 38 paraphrases Matthew Arnold: "Sometimes writing shows us what is beautiful, sometimes what is eel, sometimes what is ugly or petty or stupid. Writing is at heart a criticism of life." to do so, must describe it realistically

CHAPTER THREE : MY STORY, MY SELF (p. 41)

p. 42-43 does a whole long riff on "Know thyself." Good to photocopy or scan for classes. One example: "Eventually, they [students] discover that their writing validates their lives."

p. 45- interesting section on how to define a "paragraph"

p. 46 allusion to Michael Chabon's "Wonder Boys"

"Every teacher eventually finds the most comfortable method or manner of teaching, which is inevitably an extension of personality."

p. 53 useful discussion of humor writing (e.g. James Thurber)

p. 54 Eudora Welty: "Characters do surprise you." (One Writer's Beginning)

p. 56 Coleridge's observation that: "The power of Hamlet comes from the fact that we know Hamlet will die from the start, and when he does die finally, his death is much more moving."

p. 58 "Voice should be selfless." "Voice is the knowledge of what you want to say."

p. 60 In counseling his students not to be daunted by criticism, he quotes iconic NBA center Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, when his daughter asked him, 'Daddy, what do you thin when they boo you like that?' He said, 'I never hear the boos because I never hear the cheers.' Your vision, only your vision, matters."

p. 62 His students are always trying to pin him down, as to what constitutes "good writing." At one point, Rosenblatt confesses: "I believe in spare writing. Precise and restrained writing. I like short sentences. Fragmented sentences, sometimes. I enjoy dropping in exotic words from time to time."

CHAPTER FOUR : MEMORY AND DREAMS (p. 65)

P. 65-66 Reflecting on one of his students contemplating being a teacher herself, Rosenblatt cites Theodore Roethke: "A ripple widening from a single stone, winding around the waters of the world.

p. 70-71 plays a game with his students, betting that they cannot name "a dozen famous essayists" Bacon, Emerson, Thoreau, Montaigne, Orwell, G. K. Chesterton, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Annie Dillard, Twain

p. 74 Rosenblatt contrasts "school writing" and "journalism" with "real writing": "In real writing, the words drift away from the subject. Journalism is communication. It delivers information, even in the form of ideas, If you only do that, you're not writing."

p. 76 the derivation of the Essay, from the French: "to try" an essay is an attempt p. 77 Virginia Woolf's "The Death of a Moth"

p. 78 "In the essays we most enjoy, we get the feeling—deliberately created by the essayist—that he is being taken on a guided tour of an idea, and that we are along for the walk."

p. 79 Swift's "A Modest Proposal" a "satire should attack something important"

p. 83 one of his students observes: "memory is like the imagination. WE remember some things the way we wish they had been, facts suiting our feelings."

p. 87 contrasting the memoir w. a personal essay "Both take chaotic material and give it coherence. A memoir is always a memoir. A personal essay can be that, but also something else. It can use memory to make a point, and it is usually more rational. A memoir takes advantage of the irrational."

p. 88-89 writing about tragedy favors the "restrained writing" Rosenblatt has leaned towards earlier "tone thing you learn the more you write is to leave much of the work up to the reader, the way great movie actors leave the work to the audience." (alludes to James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Anthony Hopkins)

CHAPTER FIVE : WRITING LIKE A READER (p. 91)

a useful chapter about what books influence a writer he mentions Nabokov, Updike,

p. 94 when student talked about his father taking him to the library to get books: "Books were verification of the imagination." His father let him check out books the librarian felt were "too old" for him. p. 95 "It was the idea of the book, more than the book itself that got to me."

p. 100 Rosenblatt also warns them: "Because reading is knowledge, and it is possible to have too much of it. As a writer you should know as much as you need to know, but no more than that. Read like a picky thief. Stephen Spender cautioned the young wrier to be 'on guard against the corruption that comes from excessive sophistication' which is the same thing Rimbaud meant when he advised young writers to toss away their dictionaries, and find their own language."

p. 101 "Writers are not passive recipients of knowledge, which accounts for most of us having been very bad students."

p. 102 They trade quotations about how the final draft should appear effortless. Rosenblatt starts with Alexander Pope's "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance / As those move easiest who have learned to dance." Robert then quotes Yeats: If it does not seem like a moment's thought / all the stitching and unstitching will be for naught."

p. 105-105 Helen Keller as a role model for a writer

p. 109 "Other worlds may be interesting, fascinating, even enthralling. But in none of these others are you wholly free. The artist is the only free person. You are free when you read. You are free when you write."

CHAPTER SIX : A FINE FRENZY (p. 113)

p. 114 from A Midsummer Night's Dream: "The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name."

p. 115 Rosenblatt reminds fellow teachers that "You're Virgil, not Dante. It's their adventure. What you must do is make sure they do not lose sight of their own goals, and try not to substitute your goals for theirs."

running out of steam, but this chapter has some good insight on the teaching of poetry (Teddy, Eireann, others might be interested in it)

CHAPTER SEVEN : PARTING SHOTS (p. 135)

p. 138 a nice wrap-up anecdote occurs when Rosenblatt's 3-year-old grandson asks him what his book is about. "a book about teaching people how to write." "But people already know how to write," said James. "You don't need to teach them." ;-) oh, that it were true . . .

the title of the book comes from the poet A. D. Hope: "You must love the world as iot is, because the world, for all its murder and madness, is worth loving. Nothing you write will matter unless it moves the human heart . . . and the heart that you must move is corrupt, depraved and desperate for your love."

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