It seems right to dedicate this collection to my friend Sybil Claiborne, my colleague in the Writing and Mother Trade... we talked and talked for nearly 40 years. Then she died. Three days before that, she said slowly, with the delicacy of an unsatisfied person with only a dozen words left, Grace, the real question is—how are we to live our lives?
How are we to live our lives? How are we to tell our stories? These are the only questions Grace Paley cares to answer. (A host of questions, large and small, fit under these two headings, and they include: How are we to prevent suffering? How are we to do what is right? How are we to be happy as well as good? How do we raise our children without losing ourselves or abandoning the world? How do we allow ourselves to care about our own stories, as well as those of people 5,000 miles away?)
There are about a thousand people who say: Grace Paley is not just one of my favorite writers, she is one of my favorite persons. She leads by example for every writer who wants to tell a story in his or her own language (not the high language of Henry James or the clever, ironic wordplay of so many modern writers, but a voice that grows out of what is heard around the kitchen table: family talk, family tales, family pain), and for every writer who feels that what happens in the world is not merely a backdrop for a good story but part of it, and that stories belong in the world and can even illuminate it. She leads by example: her deeply loving marriage and her deep love of doing good and doing right (and never saying a preachy, complacent, self-satisfied word about it). Without being cozy or cloying, she has been mother not only to her own children but to a large handful of younger women writers, all of whom think of themselves as Grace's daughters-in-prose, all of whom hope that they are the favorite, all of whom count themselves lucky to have read her and known her and count themselves lucky-times-a-thousand to have been cared for and advised by her.
Grace says: "Talking is the first voice of a writer. I always heard it, I just didn't know you could write it. I write the voices you hear every day—it's just that people don't recognize how wonderfully people talk. I think every time a person tells the truth, that person is speaking beautifully."
And her readers are lucky, too. If you have ever stared out a dirty window and thought that you may have taken a seriously wrong turn ten years ago; if you have ever loved your kids too much and your husband not enough (and the other way around, and no amount of flip-flopping achieves balance); if you have ever worried about the state of the world and been unsure that you can make any difference at all, Grace Paley is your Writer Laureate. In her work there is always poetry ("Goodbye, dear friend, topic of my life," says a woman parting from her longtime lover), and characters we recognize and long to know better (an insecure and adulterous young mother, an unhappily aging old man, a middle-aged woman trying to make peace with her dying father's wishes and her own selfish, artistic impulses), melody and dialogue so fresh and alive, you feel that you have overheard it rather than read it. Plot takes a backseat, which suits me fine—as a reader, as a writer, and as a person—since I have come to think that that's how it is in life as well. The things that happen to us (even major, terrible, life-altering things: birth, death, prison, abandonment, illness) do not determine who we are; they reveal who we are. Grace Paley's stories are committed to revealing who people are—especially women.
Find the paragraph to
hold the poem steady
for six or eight pages...
don't let her lose the poem
in the telling of day by
day because the subject
is time the place is only
paper the story is still
a puzzle the teller
In one of my favorite stories, "A Conversation with My Father" (and you can riffle through Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and The Little Disturbances of Man and Later the Same Day to see which of the 45 is your favorite), Grace Paley tells us something, not only about life and death but about the nature of storytelling as well. The story of a father who wants his daughter to shape their family stories more elegantly and neatly (less harshly, less distressingly) and of the daughter who wants to please him, but cannot give up what she knows to be true, is carried along on classic Paley language: wisecracking, urban, tender, intense, and understated. At the end, the reader is turned, inevitably, to face his or her own family: How can one family live with so many different truths? And how does anyone ever know another person, least of all a mother or a father?
"Goodbye and Good Luck," which may possibly be my very favorite story of all time, is early and essential Paley. It is a story of love, and of mistakes and missteps that take years to correct themselves, and the story itself is, like the love affair, ardent, charming, wise, knowing. The story requires that the reader bear heartbreak, without ever renouncing either love or the world. I think that is what grace is, and I think that is what Grace means: Bear the world, without giving in, and love the people in it, without hesitation.
From "A Poem About Storytelling":
The artist comes next She waits for
the listeners too What if they're all dead or
deafened by grief or in prison Then
there's no way out of it She will listen
It's her work She will be the listener
in the story of the stories