Advice to writers from Roger Rosenblatt

Essayist Roger Rosenblatt has a forthcoming book, titled Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing. “Book Bench,” one of the The New Yorker‘s blogs, has a brief excerpt, titled “An Inspirational Letter to My Students.” I particularly like this section:

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.

And this:

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.

I really love, “The world is not a focus group. The world is an appetite waiting to be defined.” I have long believed that the best stories are stories that readers didn’t know they wanted or needed until they read them. On this blog and elsewhere, I and others have repeatedly cited reader survey data to argue our case for investing in high-quality print magazines—readers tell us they want print, they tell us they want stories on big ideas, they tell us they don’t want campaign stories or donor profiles. From those arguments it would be easy to suppose that we also advocate a sort of consumer sampling and testing to determine which stories we should publish. Reader surveys can be relied on to indicate general areas of interest or uninterest. But I would argue that no great story ever came out of applying consumer research. Great stories come from writers who are deeply engaged with their subjects and come to readers saying, “You need to hear this.” It takes skill and experience and wisdom to carry this off, but I believe it’s how it is done.

Finally:

Everything contains significance. But some significances are more equal than others. The writers whom we agree are the great ones deal only in matters of proved importance. They are great because their subjects and themes are great, and thus their usefulness is great as well. Their souls are great, and they have had the good sense and the courage to consult their souls before their pens touched paper. Go and do likewise.

Matters of proved importance. Amen.

One comment

  1. Chris Lazzarino

    Terrific find, Dale, thanks. Looks fascinating, will be eager to read it.

    Might I also raise a discussion point?

    Are such inspirations sometimes . . . misleading? Are these sorts of lofty goals for writing beyond the scope of 99 percent of what we do as professional writers, editors, communicators? I guess I sometimes get frustrated reading and hearing such motivations knowing that this afternoon I’m going to be working on a 500-word profile, tomorrow I’ll be doing a couple of 500-word research pieces, and I’d be doing my readers a disservice if I aim for the stars and overwrite what should be straightforward, easy-to-digest stories. In all honesty, how often do we aim for great? Speaking for myself, I’d guess that I get my hands on one or two a year that I think might have an opportunity to be special. The rest of the time, professional is my goal, and I don’t regard professional as “merely.” In its proper place, it’s perfectly appropriate. P’haps I’m being a wet blanket and am missing opportunities for grandeur . . .

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