Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Mysteries of Gertrude Stein

Oct. 14

"When they are alone they want to be with others, and when they are with others they want to be alone. After all, human beings are like that." -- Gertrude Stein.

One of the characters in my novel is a Gertrude Stein scholar. I have a friend, Sara Kirschenbaum, who wrote her creative thesis on Stein. I must confess: I don't get Stein. But maybe there is a lot more to her than meets the eye. (Sara, feel free to weigh in here anytime.) It's easy to mock things or people that we don't understand.

I like Stein's quote because it expresses how many of us feel so much of the time: neither really here nor there. We can't wait to go somewhere, and once we're there, we wonder what's next. Writer David Brooks calls this "the paradise spell"--the idea that true happiness is in the future, just over the next rise. I can relate. I spent my entire childhood and adolescence on the move, moving from state to state, country to country.

But I can honestly say I don't want to be anywhere other than right here, right now.

"I vant to be alone," Garbo said. And I vant to be distracted too. (I've just glanced at my watch. Dinner is 4 hours and 45 minutes away.) Lunch, by the way, was a very intense mozzarella and basil sandwich with vinagrette on a sourdough roll, and a juicy apple. So even though I'm happily here, my mind is a jungle gym full of swinging thoughts.

Here's another quote of Stein's:

"You'll be old and you never lived, and you feel kind of silly to lie down and die and never to have lived, to have been a job chaser and never have lived."

I am here at this retreat, and for the most part, I am alone, except I'm talking to you electronically. Isn't that what we're all attempting to do? Reach out? Connect? Make a statement? Say, "I lived. I am alive. Listen to what it's like to be me. See the world through my eyes."


One of the bracing, uplifting things about this particular group of residents at Ucross is their dedication to their art. I've been told that a previous group, several years ago (all men) just sat outside on the deck all day getting smashed on beer. They didn't do a damn thing! Didn't lift a finger, didn't wash a dish. The mom in me gets mad at that.

The work ethic of this current crop of residents is s-e-r-i-o-u-s. That's not to say they're lacking in humor in the least. We have good times at breakfast, getting jacked up on our coffee before heading off to "work." I like them all.

Can you tell I'm having a hard time settling down this afternoon? I'm writing completely new stuff, trying to feel my way, trying to get to know a certain character who is mean, scared, lonely and vindictive. I'm trying to suss out what makes him the way he is and to do that, I've got to become him and discover those mean, scared, lonely and vindictive parts of myself too. I don't have to like him but on a deeper level, I must love him and understand him.

As I write, I keep glancing up at the books on the bookshelf by my desk, all the fabulous, intriguing, compelling books that have been written by people far more talented than I will ever be. And then I feel tired and have to resist the urge to go upstairs to my little bedroom and lie down.

OK, here's the deal I'm cutting with myself: I'm going to work for three more hours, then I'm going to take a bike ride and enjoy all that golden light.

Thank you for listening. How much do I owe you? Peace.


  1. I'm glad you're giving Gertrude another look. She's just an ultra creative nonfiction writer (much of the time). Your blog is gorgeous - visually and literally. I think it would scare me to death to have nothing between me and the blank page! Bravo D'Arcy.

  2. I'm so jealous of all that free time for your brain to wander and conjure...especially amid a cool and dedicated community of people. But I definitely understand feeling overwhelmed when writing entirely new stuff. As Anne Lamott advises, go ahead and write a shitty first draft if you need to. Let it romp all over the page. Maybe your scared, lonely, vindictive character has multiple personalities. Or plays Chat Roulette out of desperation to connect with someone. Or writes mean stuff in the faculty bathroom at the university. Maybe he needs to get stoned with a student to chill out. Who knows?

  3. Sara, how 'bout a Stein tutorial sometime? I know you could set me straight. As for your comment about "the blank page," well, I think you've already proved to all of us that you're very fearless when it comes to your artistic vision.

  4. Bobbi, your advice is spot on. I'm thinking about making the villain a fat guy with droopy shorts- sort of like a human version of Baby Huey. Remember him? Love, by the way, the idea of writing mean stuff about faculty in the restroom.