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Authors: Gertrude Stein

How to Write

Copyright © 1975 by Dover Publications, Inc.

All rights reserved under Pan American and International Copyright Conventions.







This Dover edition, first published in 1975, is an unabridged and unaltered republication of the work originally published by Plain Edition, Paris, in 1931, in an edition limited to 1000 copies.


The present edition contains a specially written new Preface and Introduction by Patricia Meyerowitz.



International Standard Book Number: 0-486-23144-5 Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 74-17880



Manufactured in the United States of America

Dover Publications, Inc.

31 East 2nd Street, Mineola, N.Y. 11501


When I was asked to write an introduction to this book I accepted gladly without knowing at all how I would approach it. Open the book anywhere you like and if you are unfamiliar with the work of Gertrude Stein you will very likely give up before you have gone very far. And even if you are familiar with her work this book will have no immediate meaning to you because it certainly does not tell you how to write. What it does tell you is how Gertrude Stein was writing at the time that she wrote it.

And so the question that presented itself was how could an outsider who was not writing creatively in the same way as Gertrude Stein describe exactly what she was doing. Having stated the question the answer was immediately apparent. It really is impossible to do it because to describe it in another way would be to make it into something different for its meaning is contained within its method and moment of creation. So then I decided to use the words of Gertrude Stein together with my own comments to see whether I could convey some of the ideas which occupied the thoughts of Gertrude Stein and also how she approached writing as a creative activity. This is contained in the first part of the introduction. The second part is more specifically related to HOW TO WRITE. Again I have used her own words in an effort to illustrate how one can approach an understanding of this book—a book which at first seems to make so little sense.

It is useful to remember that the innovative works of an artist are explorations and therefore cannot easily be understood by those who are not explorers in one of the art forms. Nevertheless with a little effort it is possible to understand the direction and the intentions of the artist which is all that is necessary. Total comprehension would mean total involvement.

Gertrude Stein was born in 1874 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. From 1903 until she died in 1946 she lived in France returning only once to her native land during 1934-5 for a highly successful lecture tour. Her apartment in Paris became famous as a meeting place for artists and writers who came to look at her large collection of contemporary paintings or to talk and listen to her. During her lifetime at least 26 of her books were published with twelve more following after her death.

HOW TO WRITE was written in separate parts during the period 1927-31. In this latter year the parts were collected and published together in one volume by Alice Toklas who had decided to become Gertrude Stein’s publisher in order to get the books into print. The name given to this publishing venture was Plain Edition.

Gertrude Stein was over 50 when this present volume was begun and there is no doubt that it represents part of the full flower of her creative life.




When anyone writes about a painting what has he got after the writing. A collection of words on paper but the painting is not there. It is still hanging on the wall. GS said about painting that she liked to look at it and perhaps that is all there is to do with a painting once it has its existence. Look at it. Well that is how I feel about the writing of GS. I like to read it. I like it very much.

What is there to know about the writing of GS and the thoughts and the feelings of GS and her life as an artist as a creative writer. One most important thing to know is that there is no separation between thinking and feeling and the act of writing. It is all done at the same time.

The business of Art as I tried to explain in Composition as Explanation is to live in the actual present, that is the complete actual present, and to completely express that complete actual present. (Plays, LIA 104)

It is interesting how most people write with their heads. That is to say there is a separation between thinking and writing. When this happens there is almost no feeling in the writing. Thinking and writing at the same time is feeling. Feelings of the moment without any memory. Most writing is a description of thinking that was done before the writing was written and not a realization of the thinking that goes on at the moment of writing. This is the crux of the writing of GS and almost all of it is writing and thinking done at the same time. Writing and thinking about the process of writing.

EVERYBODY’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY is a combination of writing as a description of thinking that was done before the writing and of the thinking and writing that went together as it was being written. Example.

It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing really doing nothing. If a bird or birds fly into the room is it good luck or bad luck we will say it is good luck. (EA 70)

Definition of a genius. “An exceptional natural capacity of intellect especially as shown in creative and original work in art, music, science etc.” She was right. She was.

The earth is covered all over with people but geniuses are very few. Interesting if true and it is true. (EA 164)

And so I do know what a genius is, a genius is some one who does not have to remember the two hundred years that everybody else has to remember. (EA 121)

To begin again as GS would say.

The thing one gradually comes to find out is that one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything. I am I because my little dog knows me but creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognizing that he knows, that is what destroys creation. That is what makes school. (WAM 84)

If only we didn’t teach children art. Ever. If there could be only learning and no teaching except for how to do it. What to do in art is a personal affair between the artist and the thing done and directly there are teachers who teach you what to do there is no possibility of a master-piece. How to do it is another matter. Anybody can and should learn how to do anything they want to do but what to do is a personal decision and has nothing to do with anyone. At school the two things get all mixed up and the child is taught what to do and how to do it at the same time so that when he is old enough to choose what to do he can’t he mostly can’t because most often he was already taught all the answers.

. . . and pretty soon we were all talking about epic poetry and what it was, it was exciting we found out a good deal . . . Well we all came out and they liked it and Hutchins said to me as he and I were walking, you did make them all talk more than we can make them and a number of them talked who never talked before and it was very nice of him to say it and he added and if you will come back I will be glad to have you do some teaching and I said I would and he said he would let me know and then I said you see why they talk to me is that I am like them I do not know the answer, you you say you do not know but you do know if you did not know the answer you could not spend your life in teaching but I I really do not know, I really do not, I do not even know whether there is a question let alone having an answer for a question. To me when a thing is really interesting it is when there is no question and no answer, if there is then already the subject is not interesting and it is so, that is the reason that anything for which there is a solution is not interesting that is the trouble with governments and utopias and teaching, the things not that can be learnt but that can be taught are not interesting. (EA 213)

Remembering has nothing to do with creating.

. . . and that brings us once more back to the subject of identity. At any moment when you are you you are you without the memory of yourself because if you remember yourself while you are you you are not for the purposes of creating you. This is so important because it has so much to do with the question of a writer to his audience. (WAM 85)

Any of you when you write you try to remember what you are about to write and you will see immediately how lifeless the writing becomes that is why expository writing is so dull because it is all remembered, that is why illustration is so dull because you remember what somebody looked like and you make your illustration look like it. The minute your memory functions while you are doing anything it may be very popular but actually it is dull. And that is what a master-piece is not, it may be unwelcome but it is never dull. (WAM 89)

Think about how you create if you do create you do not remember yourself as you do create. (WAM 92)

Therefore a master-piece has essentially not to be necessary, it has to be that is it has to exist but it does not have to be necessary it is not in response to necessity as action is because the minute it is necessary it has no possibility of going on. (WAM 86)

All this has to do with art and function. Art has no function or as GS says it it is not necessary. When you do your art for someone or something or in order to sell it it ceases to be art. Art has nothing to do with what anyone wants you to do or wants it to be. Nothing to do with selling it and nothing to do with anything except you and itself. The work generates itself and ideas and progress and learning come out of doing the work in a particular way. Of course any artist wants to sell his work because how do you live but directly you make your work earn your living it is no longer interesting. It becomes a necessity and you begin to do it for an audience that you remember when you are doing it. This changes the work from what it is when you do it for yourself to what it becomes when you do it for somebody else. And that has to do with fashion and sociology and has nothing to do with art.

But I do not want to begin again or go on with what was begun because after all I know I really do know that it can be done and if it can be done why do it . . . (GMMA, LIA 157)

Again this has to do with the function or purpose of creative art for the artist. If the artist knows exactly what he is going to do and more importantly how it will be done and what it will become then there really is no use in doing it since there will be nothing new in it. And so creative art is a learning process for the artist and not a description of what is already known.

There on the roads I read Buy your flour meal and meat in Georgia. And I knew that that was interesting. Was it prose or was it poetry I knew that it was interesting. Buy your flour meal and meat in Georgia. (EA 254)

I like this. It is one of the many examples of GS observing and learning and being stimulated by everything she came in contact with. She made contact easily and willingly and with pleasure. This is very clear from her writing and contact with people and places and things was an essential part of her life and work.

When I was walking the other day I saw some workmen digging up the street, that happens very often and I always ask them what they are doing and why they are doing it. It is a way I have, and means nothing except that while I am walking I like to stop and say a few words to some one. (EA 10)

. . . I like to know the name and occupation and what their father did or does and where they were born about any one. After all occupation and your name and where you were born and what your father’s business was is a thing to know about anyone, at least it is for me. (EA 203)

I am very busy finding out what people mean by what they say. I used to be interested in what they were I am now interested in what they say. (GCA, PRIMER 105)

GS considers the problem of refusal of art.

I can be accepted more than I was but I can be refused almost as often. After all if nobody refuses what you offer there must be something the matter, I do not quite know why this is so but it is so. It was not so in the nineteenth century but it is so in the twentieth century. And that is because talking and writing have got more and more separated. Talking is not thinking or feeling any more, it used to be but it is not now but writing is, and so writing naturally needs more refusing. (EA 46)

In her lecture Composition As Explanation GS describes how everybody refuses for a long time until suddenly it is accepted. Once accepted it is considered beautiful. Of course it is what it was in the beginning and as she says

If every one were not so indolent they would realize that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic. Of course it is extremely difficult nothing more so than to remember back to its not being beautiful once it has become beautiful. (CAE, PENG. 23)

I do not consider that any creative artist is anything but contemporary. Only he is sensitive to what is contemporary long before the average human being is. He puts down what is contemporary and it is exactly that. Sooner or later people realize it. (TI, PRIMER 33)

And so if an artist’s work is easily and quickly accepted it is not a truly contemporary expression. This is why GS was refused and is still most often refused. Her work is still contemporary. Of course this does not mean that if an artist’s work is refused it is necessarily contemporary.

Picasso said that no one is capable of understanding you who is not capable of doing the same work himself. (TI, PRIMER 33)

I like that. I have had many conversations with people in factories where I get materials for my work and with craftsmen. They always like to see photographs. They like to know what I do with the materials and they often get quite excited about it all. They do something quite different with the same materials but they do understand what it is I am doing. The difference is that they do not know why I do what I do but I know why they do what they do. They are capable of doing what I do and so they can understand it when I tell them but they would not do it. That is the difference between a craftsman and an artist. The work of the craftsman is necessary but the work of the creative artist is not. The craftsman does what he has to do or what he is told to do and the creative artist takes full responsibility for all of it but he never has to do it. For a writer

The writer is to serve god or mammon by writing the way it has been written or by writing the way it is being written that is to say the way the writing is writing. That is for writing the difference between serving god and mammon. If you write the way it has already been written the way writing has already been written then you are serving mammon because you are living by something some one has already been earning or has earned. If you write as you are to be writing then you are serving as a writer god because you are not earning anything. If anything is to be earned you will not know what earning is therefore you are serving god. But really there is no choice. Nobody chooses. What you do you do even if you do not yield to a temptation. After all a temptation is not very tempting. So anyway you will earn nothing. (WIEL, LIA 54)

It is the same thing in any art. You do what you do and if it earns money that’s nice but most often it does not and it is better to do your earning doing something quite different so that you never need an audience. An audience is always warming but it must never be necessary to your work. Being necessary is what makes craftsmen and fashion and commercial art. There is nothing wrong with these things only they are not art and it is funny how everyone always mixes them all up and doesn’t want to know the difference between art and the rest. That is why mostly the creative artist never earns much from his art because nobody wants to know the difference.

. . . certainly I said I do want to get rich but I never want to do what there is to do to get rich. (EA 128)

The facts of the case are that all these people, including myself, are people with a considerably large endowment, and most of us spent thirty years of our life in being made fun of and laughed at and criticized and having no existence and being without a cent of income. The work needs concentration, and one is often exhausted by it. No one would do this merely for exhibitionism; there is too much bitterness. (TI, PRIMER 32)

I was talking to a friend the other day and telling her how difficult is was sometimes to get down to work. She was so surprised. She thought it was easy and assumed that as all artists love their work all they had to do was just do it. I explained to her that it wasn’t like that at all. It takes so much effort sometimes just to begin and although going on is mostly a pleasure it is also a great effort. And no one cares whether or not you do it. No one asks you to do it and mostly no one wants it when you have done it and although as a creative artist you accept that it mostly has to be like that, nevertheless it is hard. She was surprised.

. . . Picasso used to be fond of saying that when everybody knew about you and admired your work there were just about the same two or three who were really interested as when nobody knew about you, but does it make any difference. In writing The Making of Americans I said I wrote for myself and strangers and then later now I know these strangers, are they still strangers, well anyway that too does not really bother me, the only thing that really bothers me is that the earth now is all covered over with people and that knowing anybody is not of any particular importance because anybody can know anybody. (EA 101)

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