I spend a lot of time inside my head. I try to pay attention to things, and usually I'm pretty good at it; I follow along when people talk and do my job and do not wander into traffic or get lost. But even when I'm paying attention to what's going on outside of me, part of me is somewhere else.
Sometimes I confuse what I only wanted or imagined or was afraid of in my head with what happened in "real life." Too often, I hear myself say to someone, "Didn't I tell you that?" because I thought I did, but really I only did so in my head.
Sometimes in my head I remember or imagine a long, impossible, impossibly detailed important conversation. I imagine it almost perfectly. I imagine it down to how you move your hands.
Sometimes I go over the same thing in my head so much that the only way to stop me is to change the real-life circumstance of me. If I can't get away, I go to the gym or out for a walk or do some physical labor. If I can get away, I go on a trip.
Last week, I went to Paris.
This is from Paris France by Gertrude Stein.
After all everybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves in order to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.
Paris France was published in France in 1940, the day Paris fell to the Germans. Stein had lived there for nearly 40 years, she'd written books, bought art, befriended and sometimes mentored and sometimes had spats with a lot of American and European writers and artists. Paris France is full of sometimes brilliant, sometimes goofy ruminations on childhood, animals, food, nationality, creativity, and how Stein and her pals created the 20th century: "Paris was the place that suited those of us that were to create twentieth century art and literature, naturally enough."
Gertrude Stein was arrogant ("everybody, that is, everybody who writes," as if people who don't write don't count!), dismissive, and a snob, but she was also, about some things, a genius (she called herself a genius in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas). Stein understood that sometimes people make art because they're weird and are trying to reshape the world that's troubled or rejected them, or create a world in which they and their weirdness can belong. Stein found a place to belong, in writing and with her life partner, Alice B. Toklas, and both of them found a place to belong in Paris.
Arrogant as she was, however, Stein was not, usually, so bad as to separate her art from others. Part of creating art is about creating it in or for a community. Even when you make your art alone, at some point you need others to respond to and critique it, and maybe even help you get your art out into the world. Stein helped, and was helped by, a whole lot of other writers.
Fresh from North America, a callow, nervous Ernest Hemingway came calling at Stein and Toklas's 27 Rue de Fleurus salon. When he asked her how to write, she told him to look at the paintings of Cézanne. Other visitors to Rue de Fleurus included Fitzgerald, Pound, Picasso, Braque. Not everybody went there, though. If you mentioned James Joyce there more than once, you'd never be invited back.
You could mention Joyce to Sylvia Beach. Like Stein, Beach was an odd girl (read: lesbian) who couldn't squeeze into the role expected of females back home in America. In Paris, Beach met French bookseller Adrienne Monnier. Monnier inspired Beach's desire to open an English language bookstore; she also became Beach's lifelong girlfriend. Shakespeare and Company opened in 1919, and for 20 years supported a community of expat writers. When France fell to the Germans, the store closed and never reopened. Then, in 1951, another American expat, George Whitman, opened an English language bookstore, Le Mistral, on the banks of the Seine. Whitman was a huge fan of Beach, who dropped by Le Mistral often in the 1950s. Whitman named his daughter Sylvia Beach and, in 1964, for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, renamed the store after Beach's original. He then went on acting as a Beach-like supporter of the weird writers of his generation—Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Wright, Durrell, Nin, et al.
Last week, I went to Paris to sign books at that store.
Shakespeare and Company is teensy and jumbled and crammed with books. The wooden shelves teeter up to the ceiling. On a wall by one of the winding stairs, someone painted these sweet little black-and-white line drawings of the first generation of Shakespeare and Company expat-in-Paris writers (Hemingway, Stein, et al.), and downstairs by the cash register there's a section labeled "LOST" (as in that generation). There's another section for Whitman's Beat generation friends (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Waldman, et al.). The current generation doesn't have its own section yet (we'll wait for history to weed out the crap; I've got a few ideas if you're interested...). The generation to come, however, is very well, if eccentrically, represented.
Whitman's store offers young would-be writers, in addition to books, a place to sleep. Scattered throughout the store in funny corners or nooks or even under the stairs are mattresses or beds where, if, when you meet the current Sylvia Beach (Whitman), to whom you have already sent an e-mail or a letter, and it seems like you could belong there for a while, they let you stay. Usually these "tumbleweeds," as they've been dubbed, stay for a week or so, though once somebody stayed for years. When I was there last week, and Laura, the woman who now is in charge of events, was showing me around, I saw a few people in their 20s bent over their computers in concentration on these mattresses. They looked so callow and nervous and... um... earnest. There was also a guy who had kind of a spotty beard (I don't think he'd been shaving long) who asked if one of us was Sylvia. "No," Laura said, "but she's around. Is she expecting you?" The guy smiled, eager and nervous, and said that he had e-mailed because he wanted to try to stay. "Oh..." Laura smiled, and then the guy looked like Christmas. Later, when I had signed my books and was leaving the store, I wished him luck. He thanked me and beamed and went back to his computer. He was already getting what he'd come for: a place to be inside his head and write, a place where other humans did the same and he belonged.