Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bewilderment Is Power: S. Leonard Rubinstein (1922-2013)

"Bewilderment is power."

These are the words of S. Leonard Rubinstein, my writing teacher at Penn State University in the late 1970s, my mentor and friend until his peaceful death a few days ago at the ripe old age of 91, and one of a trio of teachers to whom I dedicated my last book, Song of the Vikings.

Bewilderment is power: These are the words that chime in my head every time, like now, I am embarking on the writing of a new book--or any major piece of writing.

Bewilderment is power: Only when you realize you do not understand will you make the effort to understand.

Paired with this powerful aphorism in my mind is another: "Writing is infinitely perfectable." To revise successfully, collaboration is essential. Without criticism from sources, editors, and readers, revision can be endless, and ultimately pointless.

All of Leonard's writing students learned this. They learned that good nonfiction writing was "the painless delivery of information" and that "anything looked at closely enough is interesting." They learned that "we earn belief," that "honesty is a skill," and that writing is "a habit of mind."

I was privileged, however, as a graduate student and employee of Penn State, to produce a half-hour radio series, "Odyssey Through Literature," with Leonard as the host. (Our logo, above, was created by artist Jeffery Mathison.)

Leonard and I recorded 260 "Odyssey Through Literature" radio shows between 1980 and 1998, interviewing writers, translators, and scholars of literature from around the world. A hallmark of the show was to read the works in their original languages (as well as in translation). I became accustomed to hearing what Leonard called "the music of the language" before I knew what the words meant.

The real impact of the show on my education as a writer came after the actual interview. As the producer, I had to listen to each tape over and over again to edit it down from the recorded 50 minutes or more to our 28-minute airtime. Doing so lodged snatches of poems and prose permanently in my brain, along with the voice of the person who read it on the air. For instance:

--The apparition of these faces in the crowd: petals on a wet black bough.
(Ezra Pound, read by Peter Schneeman)

--Who were these people? And who finished them to the last? If dust had an alphabet, I would learn.
(Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri poet)

--We rode the low moon out of the sky, our hooves drummed up the door.
(Rudyard Kipling, read by Jorge Luis Borges)

--I am the exile, the wanderer, the troubadour (whatever they say)
(Dennis Brutus, an exiled South African poet)

--The bud is the emblem of all things, even of those things that don’t flower. For everything flowers, from within: of self-blessing.
(Galway Kinnell)

--My ancestor, a man of Himalayan snow, came to Kashmir from Samarkand, carrying a bag of whalebones, heirlooms of sea funerals.
(Shahid, again)

--“Haere mai, mokopuna,” she would say. And I would always go with her, for I was both her keeper and her companion. I was a small boy; she was a child too, in an old woman’s body.
“Where are we going today, Nanny?” I would ask. But I always knew.
“We go down to the sea, mokopuna, to the sea…”
(Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, read by Murray Martin)

Working with Leonard on "Odyssey Through Literature" convinced me that all literature, all good writing, is meant to be read aloud: that the sound of the words is as important as their dictionary meaning and cannot be divorced from that meaning. It made me conscious in my own writing of rhythm and rhyme, alliteration and assonance. It made me punctuate musically. It made me take care that the words I chose fit both the sound and the sense of what I wanted to say.

In 2007, many years after our radio program ended and I had moved away, I received a thank-you letter from Leonard: "Slowly, in the course of transforming 'Odyssey Through Literature' cassettes into CDs, I realize how much I owe you for bringing so many accomplished people to sit across the table from me. In short, I thank you for my education."

I hope Leonard knew, when I dedicated Song of the Vikings to him in 2012 (for which he also, gracious as ever, sent me a thank-you letter), that I thanked him for my education.

Some people say writing can't be taught. I think the many students of S. Leonard Rubinstein who are now professional writers would agree with me that it can.

Click here to read Leonard's obituary. 

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.


  1. A lovely tribute, Nancy. Thanks for letting us know about him.

  2. Nancy I'm sorry for your loss - I know how much Leonard meant to you as a writer and personally (as if the two were separate things) and you are a continuing part of his legacy.

  3. Nancy, thanks much for your delightful tribute to my brother. Your many talents contributed significantly to Odyssey Through Literature. You provided a considerable amount of the content for our frequent schmoozing via email and skype. I am grateful.

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