my heart ... and a review of roger rosenblatt's unless it moves the human heart

There's something bonding and wonderful about participating in a writing class. Maybe it's the shared passion for words. Maybe it's the opening of your own heart in transparent communication, that opening up that welcomes peer criticism by those whom who must critique as well. 

I remember touring a replica of James Cook's ship in Australia on holiday with a homeschooling missionary family there. We learned more that day than normal book work. And the tour guide taught us some common cliches' origins. One comes to mind in thinking about critiques: the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" of shipmen threatened with the cat whip, pledging to go easy on one another if either had to be disciplined. Though, like they, we too have to whip at least hard enough to conceal our secret oath from the captain (the teacher), or we can expect discipline ourselves. And many writing teachers do include your ability to critique your own work as well as that of your peers as part of your grade.

But I've been thinking a lot about the pleasure and challenge of writing classes recently. As Alan finishes up his PhD (Lord-willing this coming school year, though we know dissertations can stretch longer for men working full time), we've been talking a lot about our next step. Many of you know our long-term thought is to train nationals in Africa, the whole reason Alan's getting the PhD in New Testament being to qualify him for teaching on the seminary level. We agree that one parent working on an advanced degree at a time is more than enough for our household. But I was so thrilled the other night when he encouraged me toward an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Nonfiction. The MFA is a terminal degree that allows professorship in a creative field (art, cinematography, writing, e.g.), often in a low-residency model. The ones I've looked at are typically five 10-to-14 day residencies at a specific location, and then correspondence work throughout four terms. The first four residencies are instruction intensive and provide opportunities for interacting with others in the program, while the fifth is a presentation of your major work.

If I were interested in journalism, I'd definitely look into World magazine's Journalism institute ( And I'm open to God redirecting, intrigued at their heart to train journalists internationally--first in Africa, currently in India--and then also to place American Christian journalists in international newsrooms. And I love this article on servant journalism--that it's about community and compassion and humility.

But for now, my direction seems to be more toward longer works. I'm looking for the right program, interested in the one at Seattle Pacific University. And would love to hear from you if you know of a program that would be scholastically rigorous (though still meaningful). And I would love it if I could find a program whose teachers had the philosophy of writing for a purpose, to communicate truth to the world. 

My dream? To continue writing and to someday teach writing on the college level. I would love to help train the next generation of Christian communicators. But, having gotten my undergrad in Special Education, I also have a heart to teach remedial writing to those who do not find it easy to express themselves--because I believe writing is difficult for many but that they have a unique perspective that's worth hearing as well; it's just a matter of unlocking it. This dream allows me to marry my love for education and writing. And the MFA seems to be the next logical step in making my dream a reality.

We shall see what God does.

In the mean time, I picked up Roger Rosenblatt's Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing. Rosenblatt teaches in an MFA program on Long Island, NY. And reading his book is participating in one of his writing classes. He thoroughly acquaints you with different types of writers in the student characters in his book. But he also shares insights on teaching writing: these passages were my favorites. 

Here are a few of the passages that stood out to me, and I share them here (since I have to return the book to the library soon and want to be able to review them) and because some of you will enjoy them too, maybe even be interested in picking up a copy for yourself.

He talked about trying to imitate someone else's teaching style and how it was an abominable failure. 
"I actually tried it one year.... I was absurd. The students learned nothing, except, perhaps, the art of ridicule. The method that suits me [and this spoke to my SpEducator heart] is praise laced with broad, and transparently good-natured, insults. The insults merely goad, but the praise is sincere and frequent, and it is more practically useful than it sounds. If you find things you like in a student's work, and you celebrate them, then the things you don't like--the really awful parts--will seem anomalous mistakes uncharacteristic of the writer, ones they can correct. The students will side with you against their own weaknesses. If, on the other hand, they begin to think they can't do anything right, they will get worse and worse. No matter how cheerfully they appear to take your criticism, or how mature their attitude, they will think to themselves, 'I can't do this.' Or they'll write defensively, anticipating your familiar objections, and be dull within safety." (pages 47-48) 
And, I think, he is not just writing for people who want to write but also for people who do write and who teach writing. This passage could be subtitled "The Power of Praise and a Proper Posture in Critique." I'm sure my style will not be entirely identical to his, but I think I could handle his.

"One of the pleasures of teaching writing courses is that you can encourage extravagant thoughts ... in your students. These are the thoughts that will be concealed in plain and modest sentences when they write. But before that artistic reduction occurs, you want your students to think big--to think big and write small. I don't tell them that in so many words. But there's no purpose to writing unless you believe in significant things--right over wrong, good over evil. Your writing may deal with the gray between the absolutes, and all the relativities that life requires. But you still need to acknowledge that the absolutes exist, and that you are on the side of the angels. I have never known a great writer who did not believe in decency and right action, however earnestly he or his characters strayed from it." (60)

"Wordsworth quoted Coleridge as saying that every poet must create the taste by which he is relished. The same is true of teachers. I really don't want my students to write as I do, but I want them to think about writing as I do. In them, I am consciously creating a certain taste for what I believe constitutes skillful and effective writing. I want them to be both clear and wild in their work. The hammer descends on the nail. The nail is driven deep into the wood. And the wood sings." (64)

"The teaching of writing is like publishing something you write. You come up with an idea, and out it goes. Only with teaching you don't get first and second 'passes,' a publisher's term for proofs you can have second thoughts about and correct. You need to be as careful with what you say as a teacher as you are as a writer--maybe more careful, because as soon as you go public with your words, your students will blow them about like rumors. What I teach my students about writing may become writing. I try not to overthink this, because the burden of competence is daunting." (66) 
This is good advice for all teachers, not just teachers of writing. Yours is a powerful role. And parents, you are teachers, whether you have a degree in education or no. Take seriously this daunting burden. But I will add too, as a caution to writers, there comes a time when the editor says no more, the page is set, and it's too costly to revise: make sure you are completely satisfied with your writing before you send it to the editor.

When an MFA graduate gave a reading, "she told the audience that what she cherished most about our MFA writing program is that the teachers made her feel like a colleague while she was becoming one." (69) 
And I remember going to lunch with Mrs. Jamie Langston Turner, my Creative Writing and Poetry Writing teacher at Universtiy. We went to Scholtzsky's on Wade Hampton in what I now realize was the early stages of my novel, though I specifically remember telling her I thought I could finish it in the next week or so. I marvel at my faith (optimism?) sometimes. She was writing a multiple perspective novel too and asked me how I was handling the multiple perspectives. I distinctly remember being awed at that. But it is as we give others that respect, granting that their insights are significant, that we build them up into what they are becoming.

A conversation on the indirect influence of others' writing: 
"'You think the influence of what we read is indirect?' says Ana."'It is for me. When I was writing my ... novel, I was rereading [a specific author] at the same time. I wasn't reading him for purposes of imitation. I never could be directly influenced by [this other author] since he outstrides me at every turn. He is simply too great a writer. But I did like having him at my side as I wrote. He was good company, the best. It was like hanging around a superior mind. You can never equal that mind, but you strive to do your best, and not to embarrass yourself in his presence. I just wanted him in the same room.'" (92) 
I have felt this way, helped along by others' writing styles, how they successfully reach their audience. But actually, this is how I feel about reading my Bible and its Author. I mentioned in an earlier post  how maintaining a devotional walk with God makes all the difference in my writing. And I almost always write with my Bible by my side (or a tab with opened). Reread this quote with God in mind and you'll know how I feel. 

Other authors/works he mentions along the way:
Montaigne, OrwellG.K. Chesterton, "A Piece of Chalk"James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Annie Dillard, TwainDr. Zhivago, The Tempest, King LearYeats, Emerson, ThoreauFrancine Prose, Reading Like a WriterNabakov, satire, The Real Life of Sebastian KnightJohn Updike, The Writing LifeClaude Brown, Manchild in the Promised Land, autobiography presented as fictionFrank McCourt, another MFA teacher at the same schoolEdwin Muir's AutobiographyGayle Pemberton essay "Do He Have Your Number, Mr. Jeffrey?"Virginia Woolf, "Death of the Moth"Max Beerbohm, "On Taking a Walk"The Pawnbroker, story of a former concentration camp prisonerAlfred Hitchcock, Rear WindowJohnson, Gray, Cowper (18th century) "of which I never seem to tire")Tennyson, Joyce, Robert Graves "Ulysses"/UlyssesRichard Wilbur (remember "The Writer"?)Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, George Eliot, Chekhov, Dickens

"'Chaucer was a civil servant, Keats and Joyce were medical students. Wallace Stevens an insurance man. Melville a customs inspector. Nathaniel West was the night manager in a cheap hotel. Frank O'Hara worked at the ticket counter in the Museum of Modern Art. It is common practice to advise young writers to take jobs that have nothing to do with reading and writing, so as to create some space between the real world and the imagined."'We've heard that a lot,' says Imur."'But being a book editor didn't get in T.S. Eliot's way. And writers such as Doctorow, Alice McDermott, Ann Beattie, and Joyce Carol Oates continue to teach writing and literature. The trick is to find your place in the world--your town, your home, your room... After that, the trick is to recognize what you've got once you've got it, and not to let success or ambition lead you away from it." (144-145)
Interestingly, WJI (mentioned earlier) recommends those interested in journalism not major in journalism but major in something else. See their answer to the FAQ: "Should one major in journalism in college?"

"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." (151)
And there is nothing worse than wondering what you would've written if it were really what was in your heart and not just what you thought other people wanted to read.

See why I felt like I was sitting in one of Roger Rosenblatt's classes? This book was presented in such an enjoyable format and, as you can see, had some great nuggets of instruction for writing, teaching, and life. Review: Loved it. His background's obviously different from mine, his perspective unique, but I felt very much as though he'd found his voice. And I believe I have benefited from reading his book. 

So, what books have you enjoyed recently?
What is your dream? Are you on the path toward it?
And, if you hear of a fabulous MFA Creative Nonfiction program, let me know that too.

Thanks, friends. 

As we continue to find our place, 
may God give peace and grace.

With love, 

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