Wednesday, February 02, 2005

"...a very interesting thing to know..."

I was cleaning out desk drawers the other day--in lieu of actually writing--when I came across a scrap of paper apparently from years ago.

I sat and looked at the little piece of paper, on which I'd written: “One of the things that is a very interesting thing to know is how you are feeling inside you to the words that are coming out to be outside of you.” --Gertrude Stein

I know it had to be from years ago, because the last time I actually read any Gertrude Stein, I was in graduate school. That would have been sometime just after the Louisiana Purchase. (Not really, unless we're speaking in terms of geologic time, but the phrase pleased me.)

I don't really know exactly what Gertrude Stein meant by that sentence, you understand. In fact, I really don't know what she meant by a lot of the things she said--except, of course, for those things she said so directly that it seems there is no way to misunderstand her. Even those things, I don't quite trust to be as straightforward as they seem. It makes me question my own perceptions.

She's tricky, that way.

I understand what the words themselves string together to mean, in a conventional sense. It just seems very much as if something altogether deeper and more complex sits at the heart of that sentence.

Take the whole "rose is a rose is a rose" thing, for example: Of course it is. Except when it isn't. Which is part of her point. I think.

Now, admittedly, I'm getting myself all tangled up in semantics, reading a woman who--legend has it--once received a rejection from an American publisher with the kindly advice that she should write in her native tongue and employ the services of a good translator.

The more I think about the deceptive simplicity of the sentence on that scrap of paper, the more intriguing it becomes. "...a very interesting thing to know is how you are feeling inside you to the words that are coming out to be outside you."

Then I put it aside and went to work actually writing, instead of pretending I was writing when in fact I was really cleaning out desk drawers. Then an odd thing happened. I was writing a scene taking place on a porch. Suddenly, the word "porch" looked very wrong.

Now, I'm not a particularly obsessive soul. At least, not about most things. But the more I looked at the word "porch", the worse I felt about it. I had to stop and look it up. make sure it really was a "porch" I was talking about, not a patio or a veranda.

The dictionary definition sounded all right, for the context. The etymology was unenlightening: "Middle English porche, from Old French, from Latin porticus, portico, from porta, gate."

But it still looked...wrong.

The experience was akin to the discomfort of having bit the side of your tongue, and for a day or so afterwards, your tongue seems to fit awkwardly in your mouth--uncomfortable, and the wrong shape for the available space.

So I moved the scene to the yard.

"Yard" is a good word. Nice, solid-feeling. Old English roots. I can depend on a word like that, I think, not to go all strange and uncomfortable.


Anonymous said...

You do realize that you are completely certifiable, don't you, Mac?

S'why I like you so much. :)


Mac said...

Because reading Gertrude Stein makes me feel words like I've bitten my tongue?

Heh. Why, thank you. :)

Come on, Charlie, 'fess up. I suspect it's a near-universal writer's malady. I bet you occasionally find yourself looking up words you've known for years, too.

Ms M said...

I like the interpretation of Gertrude's wonderful but rather cryptic words. Do you thnk your experience of the word 'porch' summed up Stein's meaning? The word 'porch' once it is put outside is somehow not a reflection of what you imagine of the word inside. I agree it is a rather strange word, and the yard seems a good place for a scene, although, I'd prefer the scene to be in the 'back yard' or maybe 'out back' as it would be more commonly referred to here. 'Yard' is a bit woolly somehow, too English and green. There isn't a lot of green here. We're in a drought. But perhaps it rains more in your scene.

Mac said...

MsM--heh, actually, I think while the above interpretation may be--in part--accurate, I was being a wise-ass, mostly.

The important thing that I do glean from what Stein said has to do with both the emotional resonance and impact of specific, carefully chosen words; and, as well, the necessity of recognizing how it is that we feel about what we write. On top of that, I'd probably suspect a dollop of the need to be conscientious not only about word choice, but about context--how we set each word may cause it to ring slightly differently.

But maybe I'm just giving her too much credit. :)
And what do YOU think she may have meant?

Ms M said...

For me, I think I would interpret her words to mean that it can be very revealing but also potentially empowering to know and to catch those times in our lives when there is incongruity between what we speak and what we feel. Perhaps this is a bit simplistic. I liked your interpretation too (even the wise crack one). What was the context in which she said this, do you recall?

Mac said...

Actually--I don't think that's overly simplistic. I think it's a very nice way to express it.

Alas, I don't remember anything at all about the context. I apparently wrote this down some ten years ago, and have been moving it around the county with me ever since.

That makes the whole exercise something of a verbal Rorschach test, I admit. Fun, though.

Anonymous said...

Mac, you are certifiable, but have been for awhile. I much prefer Ms M's interpretation. A agree with what you said, but not in relation to the Stein quote.