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Roger Rosenblatt: How do you teach writing?

Award-winning writer Roger Rosenblatt explains what he has learned about teaching his craft.

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At Harvard there was this fellow John Kelleher who didn’t teach writing but he was so smart. He was a professor of Irish literature and I got my degree in Irish literature. I didn’t know a thing about Irish literature but I just knew that this was the man I wanted to affix myself too. He wasn’t a writing teacher but he was a teacher in a larger way.

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And finally Robert Lowell, the poet, with whom I took a poetry seminar. He was very severe and the opposite of the kind of teacher that I became. But it was something, knowing at that time, in the 1960s, that one was being taught by one of the best poets in America. It gave a taste of the writing life.

What are some common stumbling blocks to good writing?
One of the simpler ones is that you have to find a different way to say “say.” If someone says something in one paragraph, then he has to "aver" it in the next, then he has to "declare" it, then he has to "shout" it. What it does is make the reader start to focus on these various ways to say “say” when what you want to focus on is what is said.

Also [my students] don’t know that they can just say something once instead of saying it 100 times. They only need to say it once – and then just leave it alone.

Another is over-decorating. If you need three adjectives to describe something, then you’ve probably chosen the wrong something. If you chose the right word, the right noun, you don’t need to overburden it with anything that you think will make it more pretty. It will stand up on its own.

What have your students taught you?
That they need me. They need me and my ilk. They need teachers who value them and their lives. Because writing is a validation of their lives and they know it. Whether they’re writing poetry, essays, or stories, it doesn’t matter. Every writing teacher gives the subliminal message, every time they teach: "Your life counts for something." In no other subject that I know of is that message given.

Do you enjoy life as a writer?
Yes. I think there must be something wrong with me as a writer. Because all my friends who are writers find reasons to hate everything about their day. But I just love writing. I love starting the day with language and seeing if I can make something of it.

Most of your students will never publish a book. Yet you encourage them to write. Why?
You’re probably right, over 50 percent of my students will not publish a book. Although most of my students – about 80 percent – deserve to be published, whether they are or not.

But never would I discourage them from this mad pursuit. The only reason I can see for them to pursue art is for its own sake. They will receive as much satisfaction out of that pursuit as they will out of publication and in some cases more.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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