Pen On Fire blog

Marilyn Elise Powell Berns 1931-2005

This post isn’t about writing. Not exactly.

I went to Marilyn Berns’ funeral today. She was the mother of my good friend, the artist Leslie Berns Richman. I last saw Marilyn and her husband Norm when they came to my book launching party at Book Soup. I lived with Leslie in San Francisco in the late ’70s and we’ve been friends ever since, though since ’81, at least, we’ve lived in different locales.

Her mother Marilyn died last week. She had lung cancer that progressed into her liver. Her passing was rather quick. She had two daughters, Lisa and Leslie, and was married to Norm.

I was moved by the talks everyone gave in remembrance of Marilyn. Over and over people said how Marilyn was generous and loving, and quick to tell you if you weren’t doing your best. Marilyn is the sister of Colin Powell, former secretary of state. While I was moved by everyone’s talks, I was most moved by what Colin said.

He talked about how they grew up in a Bronx, New York, tenement with their parents, Luther and Ariel. Colin said Marilyn always pushed him to do his best and while she got into a good college–Buffalo State Teachers College–the one of her choice, he kept getting turned down by colleges. But he kept trying, and ended up going to City College. His sister went to college and so he had to, too. I found that moving–here was one of the most respected politicians in recent history, and he was saying it was his sister who made him want to do better, who prompted him to go to college and do all he could.

She was his sister, and she was a teacher. Marilyn was an effective teacher. That same quality, wanting the people she knew and loved to do their best, carried over to her students. Marilyn was charismatic and had an infectious laugh. She was self-assured and she wanted her students to have confidence in themselves, too. I’ve been thinking about that, about teaching and how you help a student believe in him or herself when that belief in self is lacking. Should a teacher never take no for an answer, when a student says, “I just can’t do that,” or does a good teacher persist?

I almost quit high school but there were a few teachers who wouldn’t let me. Who knew I could do better, if only they could find the key. And they did.

I wish Marilyn were here to discuss teaching (too often it takes someone passing to remember what we meant to do with that person, what we meant to talk about) and if you ever take no for an answer. Yet, I imagine she would have said, No. You never take no for an answer. You always expect more and hope for more. And sometimes the best happens.

I love Moleskine notebooks

I first corresponded with Armand Frasco, the founder of Moleskinerie.com, just after my Web site

went live. I wrote about Moleskines in my book, and later linked my site to his Web site and then he linked to mine. I revisit Moleskinerie

often and love it. It’s so well done, as well as being a gathering place for Moleskine obsessed users. A few weeks ago there was a wonderful piece in The New York Times Magazine about him and his site.

I asked Armand some questions:

BDB: Can it be that your Moleskinerie site only a year old? In the NYT mag article, the writer (Rob Walker) said you started your blog last year.

AF: Yes, Moleskinerie.com went live on January 12, 2004.

BDB: Are you surprised at all by the attention to your blog?

AF: Yes, the attention constantly amuses me. I never dreamt of being in the New York Times Magazine, etc. With the attention came the expected rise of e-mails and other requests and running the blog has become an almost full-time occupation. Moleskine is a good product that I patronize, am satisfied with and happy to share the good news.

BDB: When did you discover Moleskines?

AF: I bought my first Moleskine about four years ago at a mall in suburban Chicago. I’ve used different journals before that and still do.

BDB: What do you love about Moleskines?

AF: I love Moleskine notebooks for their sturdy construction and unobtrusive, minimalist look. The paper is excellent for my own use, which is mostly writing and some drawings. As Louis Henri Sullivan said, “Form follows function”. That is Moleskine.

BDB: Tell me more about your blog. What was the intention, when you began it?

AF: Honestly, Moleskinerie was started on a whim, on a bright but boring winter day. I searched for Moleskine users online and found hundreds. With a basically underutilized TypePad blogging account I opened Moleskinerie with the intention of connecting with other users from all over the globe.

BDB: What’s your intention now? The same?

AF: Since then, Moleskinerie has evolved to become the premier gathering place for Moleskine enthusiasts worldwide. My basic intention of bringing people together remains with the added sense of responsibility for providing a forum of expression for our readers’ amazingly diverse creative use of the notebook and the site’s continuity.

BDB: Do you write?

AF: Yes I do, for Moleskinerie, of course and for other print publications and online sites. My major interest though is photo
documentaries which I do for organizations and families. I also struggle to keep a personal journal updated.

BDB: What are you reading right now?

AF: I received a copy of Drawing from Life by Jennifer New for my birthday (July 16). This very interesting book gave me a deeper understanding of why people keep journals. A snip: “Like old Shaker chairs grown smooth from supporting so many bodies, or a handmade quilt faded from decades of laundering and human contact, journals are utilitarian objects transformed by repeated and fond use. They hold life in them, which is why we cannot let them go. And yet they are
ubiquitous to the point of invisibility.”

BDB: You’re now seen as a sort of expert on Moleskines. How does that make you feel?

AF: To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, “I am a simple Moleskine user, nothing more, nothing less.”

BDB: Anything else?

AF: Thank you Barbara for giving me this chance to share my thoughts with your many readers. Memories make us what we are and what we will become. Journals and diaries help keep those memories within ready reach (no batteries required) so get out, get a life and write about it!

Amy Krouse Rosenthal Q&A

I met Amy Krouse Rosenthal when she was a guest on “Writers on Writing” a couple of months ago to talk about her new book, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

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Here she is, again:

BDB: Does a writer have an obligation to her readers?

AKR: I think the primary obligation a writer has is to herself. If she fulfills this obligation in the truest most thorough way she knows how, then she will have indirectly fulfilled any obligation she might have to her reader.

BDB: What is your writing routine?

AKR: I take the kids to school. Then I practice yoga. Then I come home and do house stuff, get things in order, tend to the business side of my work, you know, return e-mails, phone calls, things like that. And then around 2:00 I pack up my things, grab my laptop, and head over to my favorite coffeehouse to write for about three hours. If I can get three hours in, it’s a good day. That’s pretty much my routine Monday-Thursday. I am not a morning person so I never get up early to write, never. And while I am a night person and love staying up late, I never write at night either. Night is about couch hang time with my husband. When I’m really busy or in the midst of new book I will use the late evening hours to tackle e-mails and tasks like that, but never to write. I’d say 95 percent of my book was written between the hours of 2:00 and 5:00 p.m.—for whatever reason, that’s my “on” mode.

BDB: Do you think your next book will brand you as a certain type of writer?

AKR: Not at the moment, no. But my last two books were about being a mom, so in writing this book, Encyclopedia, I knew I was intentionally and distinctly NOT writing (soley) about motherhood. I love being a mom, and I do often enjoy writing about, but I did not want that to be something that was expected of me. I kinda like writing about a lot of different stuff, so I guess the short answer here is that I’d like to be able to stretch myself and explore all sorts of topics and arenas and generally be brandless.

BDB: Any myths you see new writers entertaining?

AKR: Maybe there’s this assumption that someone, a writer, can sort of “whip something up real quick.” Sometimes getting one sentence to feel how i want it to feel can take days, or weeks. There’s the act of getting the words out, and there’s the subsequent act of crafting them. Both are time consuming and demanding, at least for me. But the reality check is this: I love words. I love the alphabet. I even love typing. The act of typing is a happy, comfortable thing for me—my fingers feel at home on a keyboard. So I think that is a strength, feeling tenderly about the tools of this trade. Maybe it’s not so much a strength—because I think “strength” implies that I had some role in it, that I worked to achieve that, to make that happen. I think I was just born with a fondness for words and sentences, and was predisposed to enjoy playing with them. It’s like a toddler who just loves balls, loves holding them, bouncing them, throwing them, is basically obsessed by them. So when that toddler becomes a child, it’s likely that he will be drawn to sports that involve a ball. Wherever there’s a ball is where the child wants to be.

Roxana Robinson on writing

I’ve been a fan of Roxana Robinson’s for some time. I think I first saw her short stories in the New Yorker and one of my favorite essays of all time, on the writing process, is in the New York Times essay collection, Writers on Writing, Volume I. I came in contact with Roxana when I joined Readerville

last year. Then she came on my show last week to talk about her new book, A Perfect Stranger

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Here is Roxana, on writing, and her work:

BDB: A Perfect Stranger is a collection of short stories. Writers are often cautioned against writing short stories because they can be difficult to sell. What do you say to that?

RR: Unfortunately, it’s true. They are harder to sell than novels. It’s odd, because you’d think that nowadays, when we all seem to have Attention Deficit Disorder, and spend our time rushing around in a state of distraction, that short stories would have more appeal than novels, which are longer, more complex, and have more information to keep track of. But a friend pointed out recently to me that short stories are actually quite similar to poems, in that they are highly focused and highly compressed, and quite demanding for the reader. You can read a novel in small doses, before you go to sleep, and you can rely on the narrative to remind you of who the characters are, and what’s going on. But a short story must be read in one sitting, and you must pay careful attention to it the whole time. So maybe the story is too demanding for the reader.

BDB: You also write essays and novels and narrative nonfiction books. Do you prefer one form over another?

RR: I like all the forms that I write in. I use them for different things. I write non-fiction about things that are more abstract and less personal, usually. If I want to write about something personal, I’ll switch to fiction, where I have more privacy and more flexibility. People have the notion that the memoir is somehow truer than fiction, but usually in a memoir you must be careful about the facts. So why not use the fictive form, where everything can be subordinated to the emotional truth you are trying to present? When I wrote the biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, it ws a wonderful opportunity to combine all the forms, really. I loved writing about early modernist art, and the emergence of photography, and the world of American art, which satisfied all my art historical tendencies. The story of O’Keeffe herself was a marvelous one, rich and complex and full of action, so in one sense it was as though I was writing a novel in which the characters and the narrative line had already been given to me.

I love the short story form, obviously. It’s a very demanding form, very exigent, but very powerful, and I like it for delivering a certain kind of emotional moment.

The novel–which I also enjoy–is a much looser form, much more forgiving, capacious and generous. It takes on your form as you write it. If you write a novel over too many years, you find yourself disagreeing with your earlier self, as your thoughts appear in the beginning. You can stuff anything into the form, anything you’re thinking about right then, there’s room for it.

BDB: What are you working on now?

RR: I’ve just finished writing the Foreword to a collection of early stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, published by Modern Library, which I much enjoyed. It’s always wonderful to reread work by a great writer, because each time you read it you’re at a different stage of your own life, and your responses are new.

I’ve also written an essay for an anthology which will come out in the fall called “The Nuclear (as in Family) Bomb,” published by Norton. I’m writing a couple of new essays for other anthologies, too – it seems to be a very popular form. And I’m going to write a blog for the Natural Resources Defense Council, for the last two weeks of this month. It will be about the natural world–about great blue herons, and fox cubs, and rogue storms, and climate change–anything that comes across my horizon. The natural world is a great passion of mine, and was one of the themes of my last novel, “Sweetwater.”

And of course I’m working on a new novel, though I can’t talk about that until it’s finished.

BDB: Why don’t you like talking about it till you’re finished?

RR: Talking about a novel–or any fiction I’m working on–before it’s finished is a dangerous move. Most novelists I know have found this to be true. If you talk about something before you’ve written it, somehow it vanishes from the arena where the two of you exist. Somehow its living presence dissipates, it seeps out and evaporates into the air, so that when you next try to work on it, this priceless, fascinating, vigorous presence it has become lifeless and empty, nothing you can make anything from at all. For a similar reason, I don’t show my work until it’s entirely finished. Until it’s whole and complete, it’s in a malleable state, and at that time anyone’s comment has too much weight, too much power, to risk my learning it. I need to finish the work in my own mind, for myself, before I expose it to anyone else’s gaze, or opinion.

BDB: When you write, are you looking to affect the reader in some way?

RR: Hmm. I don’t really think about the reader–unless it’s that I feel I am the reader, myself. What I’m trying to do is present something in a way that will be both clear and powerful for the reader to experience. I want to engage the reader both emotionally and intellectually, to lead them through some sort of questioning process, some exploration that I myself am going through. I don’t usually write about something unless I feel very strongly about it myself, so I want it to mean something powerful to the reader as well.

BDB: Who do you read?

RR: I’m an omnivore. I like books about dogs and about nature. I read AliceMunro and Ann Beattie. The last book I read was The Gate, a memoir by Francois Bizot, a French anthropologist who was captured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Right now I’m reading Mary Gordon’s new novel, Pearl, which I like very much. I’m working my way through Proust–I recently finished Sodom and Gomorrah, but it will take me some time to tackle the next volume.I read more books by women than by men, partly because our sympathies are often more in alignment, and partly out of solidarity. More books by men are published, reviewed and given prizes than books by women, despite the fact that more women read literary fiction than men. So I try to redress the balance a bit.

BDB: How do you know when an idea is to be a novel or an essay or a short story?

RR: The dynamics, for me, are very different. A short story presents itself to me as a very powerful moment. It can be
something I’ve experienced myself, something I’ve watched, or something I’ve heard about, but that moment is the core of the story. I write toward it, trying to create characters and a narrative that will make the moment as powerful for you, the reader, as it was for me. When the moment finally arrives, something else always happens–a shift occurs, a change. But the
moment is still the core of the story.

What happens with a novel, though, is completely different.

A novel appears, rather dimly and obscurely, as a set of characters and a conflict. Once I know the characters well enough, they carry out the narrative, working their way through the conflict. It means that, since I know the characters, I have some sense of what they’ll do, but I don’t have control of them. So I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen; I certainly
don’t have a plot outline beforehand.

It means that I know less about what will happen in a novel than in a story.

BDB: Advice for writers?

RR: Oh, write, write, write. For yourself. Forget about publishers and agents and the market. Write about whatever you need to write about. Write about the things that trouble you, things that make you feel ashamed, things that make you weep with rage, or cry with laughter. Write about the things that are the most important in your own secret life. The reason to write is to try to explain the world to yourself, and if you do it well enough, you’ll find that you explain it to other people too. But do it first for yourself. And good luck.

Roxana’s Web site is here

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A few things Shelby Foote said

I watched a three-hour interview with Shelby Foote on Book TV this weekend. The interview was shot a couple of years ago at Foote’s home in Memphis, TN. I wrote down a few things he said and wanted to share them with you:

He writes with a fountain pen that he dips. Why? “Because it makes me take my time,” he said. “I don’t want anything mechanical coming between me and the page.”

He was asked about his philosophy of the sentence. He said that using different lengths of sentences is more important than we know.

He also read Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust nine times, which is what influenced the way he thinks about sentences.

And he quoted George Lucas: “Talent is always a writer’s deviation.”

Shelby Foote died last week. He was in his late 80s.