In Unless it Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing (2011), the distinguished – and exceptionally versatile – writer Roger Rosenblatt includes a parting memo to the students in his course, “Writing Everything,” at Stony Brook University. Here is an excerpt:
“You may not need this postscript as much as I need to give it to you. But there is something about writing I haven’t told you, in part because it smacks of the sentimental and abstract – two of the monsters I’ve hoped to drive from your work. And yet, if I fail to give you this final piece of information, if I let you stride toward that desk of yours thinking that good writing consists only of precision and restraint, and of the right words in the right order, and using anticipation over surprise, and imagination over invention and the preference of the noun to the adjective and the verb to the adverb, and a dozen other little lessons, however helpful they may be, you may conclude that once you’ve nailed these ideas, well, you’re a writer. Well, you’re not. Not yet. . . .
“For your writing to be great – I mean great, not clever, or even brilliant, or most misleading of all, beautiful – it must be useful to the world. And for that to happen you must form an opinion of the world. And for that to happen you need to observe the world, closely and steadily, with a mind open to change. And for that to happen you have to live in the world, and not pretend that it is someone else’s world you are writing about. A tendency of modern literature is to claim, ‘We must love one another or die,’ or ‘be true to one another,’ or ‘only connect.’ Sweet as such sentiments may be, they give up on the world and imply that the best way to live in it is to hide from it in one another’s embrace. Instead, you must love the world as it is, because the world, for all its murder and madness, is worth loving. Nothing you write will matter unless it moves the human heart, said the poet A. D. Hope. And the heart that you must move is corrupt, depraved, and desperate for your love.
“How can you know what is useful to the world? The world will not tell you. The world will merely let you know what it wants, which changes from moment to moment, and is nearly always cockeyed. You cannot allow yourself to be directed by its tastes. When a writer wonders, ‘Will it sell?’ he is lost, not because he is looking to make an extra buck or two, but rather because, by dint of asking the question in the first place, he has oriented himself toward the expectations of others. The world is not a focus group. The world is an appetite waiting to be defined. The greatest love you can show it is to create what it needs, which means you must know that yourself. . . .
“You must write as if your reader needed you desperately, because he does. If, as Kafka said, a book is an ax for the frozen sea within us, then write with that frozen sea in mind and in view. See your reader, who has fallen through the ice of his own manufacture. You can just make him out, as he flails in slow motion, palms pressed upward under the ice. Here’s your ax. Now, chop away and lift him up by the shoulders. And what do you get out of this act of rescue? You save two people: your reader and yourself. Every life is exposed to things that will ruin it, and often do, for a time. But there is another life inside us that remains invulnerable and glimpses immortality. For the writer that life exists on the page, where it attaches itself to every other life, to all the lives that have been and will be.”