[The Washingtonian] Your writing book ends with a letter you sent to your students. In it you say, "For writing to be great ... it must be useful to the world." Can you talk about that?
By "useful" I don't really mean practically useful, although I'm sure there are practical applications. There are only four reasons for writing that I can think of. I didn't put this in the book, but I've thought about it since.
First, writing makes suffering endurable, and it does this by making it beautiful. Marsha Norman writes 'Night, Mother about suicide. That play is unrelenting in its sadness, and it ends in suicide. Someone might say, "Why do this?" The answer is because art made it endurable, made it beautiful.
Second, writing makes evil intelligible. If we ever think evil is beyond our capability, we're kidding ourselves. Look at Iago -- Othello's sort of a stiff, but Iago's the one we really remember. If you know that evil is intelligible, that anyone is capable of it, then you can make moral use of that.
Third, writing makes justice desirable. I can't imagine anything more important to you, me, or any people we know and like than justice or injustice. Every time there's an injustice, your fists clench. The Winslow Boy fights England, and when that barrister's motto, "Let right be done," is said, tears well up and it's just wonderful.
Finally, writing makes love possible. All these things--suffering, injustice, and evil--one can still love above these things, love the animals we are and wish them well. That to me is the sublime use of writing.
What more is there to say than that? Rosenblatt's book about writing Unless it Moves the Human Heart just moved to the top of my wishlist. Check it out!