Feb. 3, 2005

Tender Buttons

by Gertrude Stein

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: from Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein.

from Tender Buttons

A light in the moon the only light is on Sunday. What was the sensible decision. The
sensible decision was that notwithstanding many declarations and more music, not even
notwithstanding the choice and a torch and a collection, notwithstanding the celebrating
hat and a vacation and even more noise than cutting, notwithstanding Europe and Asia
and being overbearing, not even notwithstanding an elephant and a strict occasion, not even
withstanding more cultivation and some seasoning, not even with drowning and with the ocean being encircling, not even with more likeness and any cloud, not even
with terrific sacrifice of pedestrianism and a special resolution, not even more likely to be
pleasing. The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is
wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which
there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist and short story writer Richard Yates, born in Yonkers, New York (1926). He was a writer whose work influenced many other writers, including Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, and Robert Stone, but he never sold many copies of his own books. He spent his life struggling to pay the bills with teaching jobs, trying to find time to write. When he died in 1992, few of his books were still in print. But a group of writers, including Richard Ford, Michael Chabon and Kurt Vonnegut, began to champion his work, and they brought many of his novels back into print, including Revolutionary Road (1961) and The Easter Parade (1976). They also published The Collected Stories of Richard Yates (2001), which became a minor bestseller.

It's the birthday of the novelist Paul Auster, born in Newark, New Jersey (1947). Growing up, he didn't get along with his father, who was an extremely distant, solitary man. Auster wrote, "Devoid of passion, either for a thing, a person, or an idea, incapable or unwilling to reveal himself under any circumstances, [my father] had managed to keep himself at a distance from life... In the deepest, most unalterable sense, he was an invisible man."

Auster's parents divorced when he was 15, and around the same time he decided to become a writer. He went to Columbia University in 1965, where he spent almost all of his time reading.

He dropped out of graduate school to take a job mopping floors on an oil tanker, and then spent several years living in poverty in Paris. When he returned to the United States, he tried to make a living as a poet and translator, but he could barely pay the bills.

Auster was struggling with writer's block and depression, his marriage was breaking up, and then one morning he learned that his father, the man he'd never gotten along with, had died and left him enough money to support him as a writer. The first book he wrote with that support was a memoir about his father called The Invention of Solitude (1982).

Paul Auster has gone on to write many more novels, including Book of Illusions (2002) and Oracle Night (2003).

He said, "It still seems like a strange way to make a living, sitting alone in a room for long periods of every day... I never go out looking for stories to tell; they grow inside me and become a weird compulsion. So, even though the story might change day to day, I know the characters really well, because I've carried them inside my head for years."

It's the birthday of the novelist James A. Michener, born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (1907). His parents abandoned him when he as a very young boy, and he was adopted by a poor young widow named Mabel Michener. Because he lacked roots, he became obsessed with travel. He worked in traveling carnivals and theater companies; he rode boxcars and hitchhiked across the country. By the time he was twenty years old he had already seen 45 of the lower 48 United States.

Michener's plan was to get a PhD in history and become a professor. But before he could finish that PhD, World War II broke out and he joined the Navy. It was in a Quonset hut that he began writing fiction for the first time, about his experiences as a military man. His first book Tales of the South Pacific won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. It wouldn't have made him much money, but it was turned into the Broadway musical South Pacific, and the proceeds from the musical let him devote his life to writing.

He went on to write a series of big historical novels, most of them about places, including Hawaii (1959), Chesapeake (1978), Alaska, and Texas (1985). He filled his books with historical and geographical details. When asked how he did his research he said, "What I need is very simple. A good library and access to an airport." He believed he couldn't write about a place unless he had gone there and listened to the weather reports and learned about the local sporting events. He also read a lot. For his book about Texas alone, he read more than 400 books.

Most of Michener's novels were bestsellers. They sold more than 75 million copies, but even though he made a great deal of money, he lived an extremely frugal life. He never bought shaving cream, for instance, because he'd once learned to shave with leftover slivers of soap. By living a simple life, he was able to give most of his money away. Over his lifetime, he donated $117 million to various institutions, including the University of Texas.

It's the birthday of the avant-garde novelist and poet Gertrude Stein, born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1874). She was one of the early students at Radcliffe College, the sister school to Harvard University, and her favorite professor was the psychologist William James. She was especially inspired by his ideas about language. He taught her that language often tricks us into thinking in particular ways and along particular lines. As a way of breaking free of language, he suggested she try something called automatic writing: a method of writing down as quickly as she could whatever came into her head. She loved it, and used it as one of her writing methods for the rest of her life.

Stein went to graduate school to study medicine, but she grew bored with science and dropped out. Her brothers had recently moved to Paris, so she decided to join them. Except for one six-month trip back to the United States, she lived in Paris for the rest of her life. She said, "Paris was the place that suited us who were to create the twentieth century art and literature."

Stein's brother Leo had begun collecting art, and he introduced Stein to a promising new artist named Pablo Picasso. At the time, Picasso was in the process of inventing a style of art called cubism in which he depicted an object from multiple angles at the same time. Stein decided she wanted to do the same thing with fiction. In one of her first novels, The Making of Americans, she started out writing about an American family, but because she wanted to incorporate everything that had led up to the life of this family, her novel grew into a 900-page history of the human race. She finished it in 1908, but it took her 17 more years to get it published.

Stein's first book to attract attention was Tender Buttons (1914), a book-length prose poem based on her automatic writing. In that book, she developed a style of repeating words and phrases to highlight the sounds of words instead of their meaning.

Stein wrote most of her work in exercise books, and she often wrote while she was entertaining guests. She once let Picasso paint a portrait of her, and the experience inspired her to start writing "word-portraits" of her many artist and writer friends. Her most popular book was the book she wrote about herself from the point of view of her lover Alice B. Toklas, called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933).

An interviewer once asked her what she meant by a famous passage in her work that begins, "Pigeons on the grass alas. Pigeons on the grass alas." Stein said, "I was walking in the gardens of the Luxembourg in Paris it was the end of summer the grass was yellow I was sorry that it was the end of summer and I saw the big fat pigeons in the yellow grass and I said to myself, pigeons on the yellow grass, alas, and... I kept on writing until I had emptied myself of the emotion."

Gertrude Stein argued that she was not an experimental writer. She said, "Artists do not experiment. Experiment is what scientists do... an artist puts down what he knows and at every moment it is what he knows at that moment."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show