The Power of Stories

Telling stories is the best way to teach, persuade, and even understand ourselves.

"Writers Do Not Give Up on People"

To move the heart, construct your characters carefully.

Books and heart
As a so-called expert on writing and flow, I'm always delighted to locate additional anecdotal evidence that good writing frequently originates from an altered state of consciousness. Call it flow, call it a trance.

As accomplished author Roger Rosenblatt explains in his latest book Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing:

The orderly, sequential story you read probably came out of an initially mysterious moment, and a trance. . . . The final product probably wound up looking nothing like what the author originally envisioned.

Rosenblatt is an award-winning essayist, novelist, memoirist, and playwright, as well as a teacher of writing at Harvard. His recent 155-page book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart, uses fictional techniques to simulate a stimulating creative writing class. He includes made-up conversations featuring feisty comments by students and playful yet insightful responses by himself.

Far from a point-by-point how-to, Unless leads the reader into a clearer (though still a bit nebulous) understanding of how imagination (rather than mere invention) brings life--and importance--to a novel or other piece of writing.

Here are a couple of examples of Rosenblatt's tone. For instance, he tells how good fictional characters are constructed:

Writers do not give up on people. When characters in real life cease to be interesting because they seem to fall into categories and are subject to easy generalities, people no longer pay attention to them. That is precisely the moment when writers pay the keenest attention to them, for there is nothing stranger than the ordinary-seeming man. Either he is more honorable, or more treacherous, or more anything else than he appears, but he is never what he appears.

Unless It Moves the Human Heart
And, pointing up a difference between fiction and nonfiction, Rosenblatt points out that when writing an essay or memoir, make yourself likeable to earn your readers' trust. "There's nothing like the confession of human frailty to draw the reader straight to you." Arrogance and pomposity can make interesting characters, but if the character is yourself, you risk losing many readers.

  • Here's a brief YouTube video of Rosenblatt reading from the end of the book.


The Power of Stories