“Ungrateful” young writers: borrow a soul

The book is due out on January 11th

Today I’m borrowing pieces of Roger Rosenblatt’s soul.

The prolific writer, without being “the least bit facetious” has asked that young writers try this, and effectively disregard more conventional counsel to simply be ourselves.

To be clear, he didn’t say “emulate me, specifically,” but rather suggested that:

“… if, upon examination, you find your soul inadequate to the task of great writing, then improve it, or borrow someone else’s…I say, be someone else, if that other self is superior to yours.”

Of course, this proposition is out of context here, but Rosenblatt elaborates in his forthcoming book, “Unless it Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing.” The text is based on his experience as the instructor of a graduate level writing course.

I’ve decided, after reading an excerpt,  that I wouldn’t mind mimicking his style as an experiment, especially because it is quite different from my own. In the selections below, for example, he does not shy away from longer sentences and statements that may be described as grandiloquent. But since I’m going to privately craft my pastiche, I’ll leave you with the words of the man himself. If you like this sample, please feel free to read the full excerpt, and look for the book itself in January.

Highlights from Rosenblatt’s letter to his “ungrateful students” of 2008.

Oh, read it anyway. 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.


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.


The trouble with much writing today is that it has been fertilized and nurtured in classrooms like ours, where the elements of effective writing have been isolated and studied in parts. No teacher of writing, myself included, dares speak of the subterranean power available to every writer, if that writer will but take the time to brood on the matter and unearth it.


If I have taught you only to write so that your contemporaries may say nice things to you, I have failed you. I should have been teaching you that the one goal you must aim for is the stunned, silent gratitude of history.


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.

From time to time, during the months we have been together, it may have seemed that I expected too much of you. In fact, I have expected too little. To be the writers you hope to be, you must surrender yourselves to a kind of absurdity. You must function as a displaced person in an age that contradicts all that is brave, gentle, and worthwhile in you. Every great writer has done this, in every age. You must be of every age.

The full except, without my arbitrary highlights, is available here. You can also read Rosenblatt’s 2008 piece in the New Yorker, “Making Toast.”


If you listen to no other podcast this year…

Stephanie Nolen - graphic adapted from a Toronto Life photograph by Hannelie Coetzee

Stephanie Nolen - graphic adapted from a Toronto Life photograph by Hannelie Coetzee

… you have to listen to Stephanie Nolen’s speech for the 2010 Dalton Camp Lecture in Journalism.

If you’re a student of journalism, it’s basically a moral obligation.

Last night I finally tuned in as I lay in the darkness of my room. To be honest, I could barely keep  my chest from heaving, and I had to press on my eyes to stop the tears.

This woman astonishes me, and her speech — like much of her harrowing prose — pushes my empathic capacity to its limits. She has seen things I cannot fathom, and conjures up emotions in me that I can not describe.

Yes, it was difficult to hear and shaming at times, but I can’t believe I waited this long to slow down and digest this speech. If you’re also late in listening (the talk came out in late November), don’t worry: it’s timeless, and you can and should listen now.

But don’t stop there.

Despite her skepticism with view to journalism’s new bells and whistles, Stephanie Nolen’s work is easier to share than ever before.

One of the her most powerful pieces, for me, is Rwanda: Surviving Rape (April 2004).

I can’t even bring myself to include excerpts, as I normally do, because this is long-form at its finest, and I urge you to commit to it.

Ms. Nolen often leaves me profoundly unsettled, but we need more of that in this desensitized society. She seems to have no sympathy for the Western sensitivities, and will not coddle her readers by leaving out the most nauseating details.

The young intern version of Ms. Nolen — notes one Toronto Life profile — said she got into journalism to “change the world.”

She wasn’t being precious.

“Citizenship is a tough occupation which obliges the citizen to make his own informed opinion and stand by it.” – Martha Gellhorn (Stephanie Nolen’s “patron saint”)

Screen grab from the CBC website. Click the image to go to the original.


God rest ye weary journalists

Just in time for the holidays, here’s a catchy little carol for journalistic types. Sure, it’s cheesy, but that’s how I like many of my snacks this time of year.

And, hey — since my winter break productivity always comes wrapped in time-wasters, here’s a little ditty I just wrote:

Rudolph the Wayward Intern

Rudolph, the wayward intern
had a thing for purple prose
And if you ever read it,
you could really call it gross

All of the other journos
used to laugh and call him lame.
They never let poor Rudolph
gaze upon his printed name.

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
An editor came to say:
“Rudolph, with your prose so light,
write a feel-good tale tonight.”

Then all the readers loved him
as they shouted out with glee,
Rudolph the wayward intern,
you’ll go down in history!

Rudolph the intern face! Photo by andym8y