Saturday, December 11, 2010

The one where I quote someone else

Because whenever I seem to get down with the state of the world I turn to other writers I admire, and tonight seems to be no exception. Garrison Keillor and the Writer's Almanac never disappoint.

Today's entry is exceptional:

It's the birthday of writer Grace Paley, (books by this author) born in the Bronx (1922). Her parents were Jewish Socialist immigrants from Ukraine, Isaac and Manya Gutseit (which they changed to Goodside). They spoke Yiddish and Russian at home, and English in public; her father learned English by reading Dickens. Her family was affectionate and noisy — they loved to sing and to argue about politics. Young Grace absorbed different immigrant languages in the streets of the Bronx, and she loved listening to the gossip of family and friends and neighbors. She said: "The word gossip, which is considered so terrible, is really just another way of storytelling. And it's the way women tell stories, and it's kind of denigrated, 'cause its women who do it." And she said, "It is the responsibility of the poet to listen to gossip and pass it on in the way storytellers decant the story of life."

After high school, she took a class on English literature from W.H. Auden, who was her hero. During a lecture, he asked if there were any poets in the class who would like to meet with him and discuss their work. Out of 250 people, only five raised their hands, including Grace. She arranged to meet with Auden, and after an initial setback because she went to the wrong cafĂ©, she did meet him and he read her poems, which she had written in his style, using British phrases and formal language. She said: "You understand I was a Bronx kid. We went through a few poems, and he kept asking me, do you really talk like that? And I kept saying, Oh yeah, well, sometimes. That was the great thing I learned from Auden: that you'd better talk your own language. Then I asked him what young writers now ask me — and I always tell them this story — I said to Auden, Well, do you think I should keep writing? He laughed and then became very solemn. If you're a writer, he said, you'll keep writing no matter what. That's not a question a writer should ask."

So she kept on writing poems, but she had plenty of other things in her life — she did occasional work as a typist, she was active in community projects, and she took care of her two young children. She had moved to Greenwich Village when she got married, and she spent many afternoons in Washington Square Park, hanging out with other mothers, hearing their stories. She would write down poems on scraps of paper, but she was too busy to think of writing anything much longer. Then she got sick, and she sent her kids to daycare so that she could recover. She had several days a week all to herself, so she started to write stories, drawing on the voices of the women she spent time with in the park every afternoon, writing about the kinds of events and characters that filled their lives.

She wrote three stories, and she showed them to a couple of people, including her friend Tibby McCormick, whose kids played with her kids. Tibby had just separated from her husband Kenneth McCormick, an editor at Doubleday, and Tibby guilt-tripped him into reading Paley's stories by telling him that their kids spent a lot of time hanging out at Paley's house and it was the least he could do. So he read them, and he came to see Paley and told that if she would write seven more stories, he would publish a book. And that was The Little Disturbances of Man (1959). Her first story in the collection, "Goodbye and Good Luck," begins: "I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn't no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don't be surprised — change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused." The whole story had sprung from that single phrase, "I was popular in certain circles," which one of her aunts had said many years earlier. Paley said that she often based a story around a single line or phrase or way of speaking that rattled around in her head until she created a story for it.

She published just two more collections of stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985). But she gained a devoted following, and when her Collected Stories was released in 1994, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She knew each story inside and out, and when someone would tell her that they loved one of her specific stories, her response was: "What's wrong with the rest?"

She never made her living as a writer alone. She taught at Sarah Lawrence and the City College of New York. And she was a passionate activist for social causes, protesting against nuclear proliferation and against wars from Vietnam to Iraq, and lobbying for women's rights. She said: "I think that any life that's interesting, lived, has a lot of pulls in it. It seems to me natural that I'd be pulled in those ways. [...] And you are privileged somehow to do as much as you can. I wouldn't give any of it up. And I've talked a lot about this with women's groups because I think that in whatever is gained, that everything, that the world should be gained. But that nothing should be given up. I think a good hard greed is the way to approach life."

She said: "You can't write without a lot of pressure. Sometimes the pressure comes from anger, which then changes into a pressure to write. It's not so much a matter of getting distance as simply a translation. I felt a lot of pressure writing some of those stories about women. Writers are lucky because when they're angry, the anger — by habit almost — I wouldn't say transcends but becomes an acute pressure to write, to tell. Some guy, he's angry, he wants to take a poke at someone — or he kicks a can, or sets fire to the house, or hits his wife, or the wife smacks the kid. Then again, it's not always violent. Some people go out and run for three hours. Some people go shopping. The pressure from anger is an energy that can be violent or useful or useless. Also the pressure doesn't have to be anger. It could be love. One could be overcome with feelings of lifetime love or justice. Why not?"
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