Jack Nicholson calls her the Question Machine. Shirley MacLaine calls herself that too. Pondering, probing, darting from town to town, stage to sound stage, she seems in perpetual motion. MacLaine has just finished a book tour--for "Dancing in the Light," her fourth volume of memoirs--and she will soon begin filming an ABC movie of her best seller, "Out on a Limb," in which she plays herself Q: You seem to be everywhere at once, visible, and then word comes that you've just spent six weeks totally alone in your house facing Mt. Rainier. Is the private Shirley in balance with the public Shirley? A: Sure, but something has changed lately. I hadn't realized this until now, but doing nothing is a big part of my life. Doing nothing is the expedition, the exploration. Instead of a trip to China, a walk along the beach with my dog--that's the trip. People wonder, "How does she do it?" and the answer again is, I do it by spending a lot of time doing nothing. If you can call listening doing nothing, that is. Q: Still, you juggle concerts, writing, promoting, acting, running three homes, mothering. All that without a partner. How? A: Do I need somebody else to be me? Isn't that the question? I am my other half, and I don't find that selfish or self-centered. People enter our lives, we click or not, and then move on. It all comes back to self. Maybe it's because I've had so many lovers, but I learned very early about moving on. It seemed natural. Q: But doesn't it make for a here - today , gone - tomorrow life? A: Maybe, but we're only here today. Each day is a new incarnation, and I don't mean to sound hippy-dippy. We live in the here and now. My parents are 83, and we can now talk together joyously about their inevitable deaths. Daddy called the other day and said: "Shirl, that word reincarnation you use; it's a real David Susskind word. Why don't you use rebirth instead?" I loved that. Q: You claim that we choose our parents. That is a new notion to many people. A: If we understand that we choose our friends and colleagues, then it's only a short step to understanding that we also choose our parents. It also helps us stop blaming them for our lives. Contrary to rumor, I've never sat on a mountaintop and had a revelation. But once, just once, I did have a complete revelation. Midway in a lovers' quarrel, I realized that I had created the whole problem myself. I could have justified blaming the other person, but a little voice said, "Shirley, you know better." I knew I had invented the quarrel, in order to learn something. The minute I understood that, the problem vanished. So, unfortunately, did the person. Q: Privately, some people say: "It's easy for MacLaine to be metaphysical. She's rich, has a reputation as well as remarkable stamina. What's the risk?" How do you respond? A: With a question. Who has more to risk, somebody famous like me or somebody who's not exposed? Frankly, I think that I represent one thing to people, and that's survival. I'm the one who fell in a hole and kept climbing out. People forget my failures, and that may be because I never did a theatrical, self-destructive thing. I was always healthy, but I fell into a lot of holes. I've pulled myself out from under myself. And I will continue to create ways to do that. Q: Why? A: Because growth comes from combustion. Do you want to understand loneliness? Then just provoke an argument with a loved one, and you'll be alone. We create our conflicts because we need them to learn. Q: That sounds pretty serious. Does it ever get too serious? A: Sure, several men have left me because I was too serious. Right now, I'm looking for ways to "ootz" us all into metaphysical humor. Because laughter is the true sign of health. That, along with energy and a minimum of oral gratification needs. These days I'm laughing a lot. Q: Do you know why? A: Sure I know why. Life is a cosmic joke.