Grace Paley: “Write What Will Stop Your Breath If You Don’t Write”

Hallie Zens, age 9, writes a message on the blackboard at the Thetford Community Center during a letter writing session held in memory of writer Grace Paley on her birthday. Paley lived in Thetford, Vermont, and in New York City. She died in 2007 at age 84 at her home in Thetford. (Photo by Jason Johns courtesy the Valley News)

Today is the birthday of writer Grace Paley.

Although Paley’s writing output was modest during her 84 years — some four dozen stories in three volumes: The Little Disturbances of Man (Doubleday, 1959); Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974); and Later the Same Day (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985)–she was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and continues to have a devoted following today.

In a 1992 interview with The Paris Review, the magazine made this observation about her brevity in both her fiction and in her conversation:

Occasionally she will admit that, though it is “not nice” of her to say so, she believes that she can accomplish as much in a few stories as her longer-winded colleagues do in a novel. And she points out that she has had many other important things to do with her time, such as raising children and participating in politics. “Art,” she explains, “is too long, and life is too short.” Paley is noticeably unaffected by the pressures of mortality which drive most writers to publish…

The oft-noted Paley paradox is the contrast between her grandmotherly appearance and her no-schmaltz personality. Paley says only what is necessary. Ask her a yes-or-no question, and she will answer yes or no. Ask her a foolish question, and she will kindly but clearly convey her impatience. Talking with her, one develops the impression that she listens and speaks in two different, sometimes conflicting capacities. As a person she is tolerant and easygoing, as a user of words, merciless.

Grace Goodside grew up speaking Russian and Yiddish at her home in the Bronx–her parents immigrated to New York 17 years before she was born. Writing was only one of Paley’s jobs. As The Paris Review observes, she spent a lot of time in playgrounds when her children were young, was very active in the feminist and peace movements, and taught courses at City College, Columbia University, Syracuse University, and Sarah Lawrence College. She was also a co-founder of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York in 1967.

Grace Paley (Photo Courtesy Dorothy Marder)

“Our idea,” Paley said at 1996 symposium on Educating the Imagination, “was that children—by writing, by putting down words, by reading, by beginning to love literature, by the inventiveness of listening to one another—could begin to understand the world better and to make a better world for themselves. That always seemed to me such a natural idea that I’ve never understood why it took so much aggressiveness and so much time to get it started!”

Paley’s writing, which appeared in the latter-half of the timorous 50s, was radical for its time. As the New York Times noted in Paley’s obituary, “Ms. Paley was among the earliest American writers to explore the lives of women — mostly Jewish, mostly New Yorkers — in all their dailiness. She focused especially on single mothers, whose days were an exquisite mix of sexual yearning and pulverizing fatigue. In a sense, her work was about what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow and Malamud’s men had loved and left behind.”
 

Grace Paley at her home in Thetford, Vermont (Photo by Toby Talbot Courtesy the AP)

 

When The Paris Review asked Paley about the doors she and Tillie Olsen opened for other writers, Paley acknowledged that she initially had doubts about her stories:

I hope so. Of course that’s not up to me or Tillie to say, Yes, there was the door and we opened it—we can’t say that. It’s not nice. I will say I knew I wanted to write about women and children, but I put it off for a couple of years because I thought, People will think this is trivial, nothing. Then I thought, It’s what I have to write. It’s what I want to read. And I don’t see it out there.

Meanwhile, the women’s movement had begun to gather force. It needed to become the second wave. It turned out that we were some of the drops in the wave. Tillie was more like a cupful.

 

Image Courtesy "The Paris Review" - Click to Enlarge

 
The Paris Review interview is worth reading in its entirety. Paley has many worthwhile observations about the writing life, age, money, and parenting:

[Having children is] a different life. Another creature is really dependent on you. I think it’s good for a writer, though. I know some people say women writers should not have children. Of course, it was worse for them back then. Years ago just to do the kids’ wash could take the whole day, so if you were poor it was impossible to write. If you were rich, you could hire a maid; it was possible if you were George Sand. But even now we need help. My kids were in day care from the time they were three years old…

I wrote at different paces. I wrote my first stories when I was sick and had a few weeks at home. I made a start in a big chunk of time, about three weeks. And after that I just kept going.

Sometimes one or the other part of my life would pull me away from writing—the children of course and then the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam war. Having grown up the way I did, it just seemed natural to become involved. That was what the whole country was about. I was often busy with that from morning until night.

Paley resisted the idea that wisdom is a natural result of age:  “When people get old they seem wise, but it’s only because they’ve got a little more experience, that’s all. I’m not so wise. Two things happen when you get older. You have more experience, so you either seem wiser, or you get totally foolish. There are only those two options. You choose one, probably the wrong one.”

 

Grace Paley (Photo Courtesy Diana J. Davies)

 
As this clip from the documentary Grace shows, Paley was full of both humor and passion, as well as honest advice for emerging writers. Here are her thoughts on money, love, and writing from The Paris Review interview:

It’s helpful to have money. I don’t think writers have to suffer to starve to death. One of the first things I tell my classes is, If you want to write, keep a low overhead. If you want to live expansively, you’re going to be in trouble because then you have to start thinking very hard about whom you’re writing to, who your audience is, who the editor thinks your audience is, who he wants your audience to be…

The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.

 

Grace Paley Documentary Trailer from Grace Documentary on Vimeo.


 
You can read the entire Paris Review interview at the magazine’s website. Find out more about the documentary Grace at the filmmakers’ website. You can explore Paley’s books here, or at your local bookstore or library:
 

 
(Thanks to writers Sara Marcus and Sarah Schulman for passing along this clip of the Paley documentary.)

 

About the Author:

I'm a writer, photographer, and the creator of Gwarlingo, a crowd-funded arts & culture journal that covers contemporary art, music, books, film, and the creative process. I’ve spent nearly 20 years as an arts enabler, helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I’ve also done time at an arts magazine, a library, and an art museum in Atlanta. For two years I cared for injured eagles, hawks, and owls at a raptor rehabilitation center in Vermont. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, consulting, and creative projects full-time. (You can check out my recent projects here.) I’ve appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, served as the judge for A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Literary Prize, and received fellowships from the Hambidge Center and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. My writing and photography have appeared in RISD XYZ magazine, 2Paragraphs, Psychology Today, Born Journal, and other publications. I offer one-on-one coaching sessions, group workshops, and speak to businesses, arts groups, and students about overcoming the psychological and practical barriers to producing your best work. (Read more here .) If you'd like to work with me one-on-one or hire me to speak at your school, business, or organization, please contact me at michelle (at) gwarlingo (dot) com. -

2 Comments

  1. Suzi Banks Baum December 11, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Oh Michelle, what a wonderful tribute to Grace Paley, erudite, passionate, clear.
    I am soaked in writing about mothering. I just launched my http://www.outofthemouthsofbabes.org project, which I’d love for you to visit. I find your Gwarlingo posts to be off the charts brain and soul food. Thank you for the time you invest in each of us witnessing yet another aspect of our contemporary life with gratitude. I will come back to this post and share it around.
    Thank you again. Suzi

    • John Greenwood December 11, 2011 at 6:46 pm

      Thank you for your informative and educational posts. I stop in for inspiration and direction and I never fail to leave without stuffing my pockets full. I now must see this documentary.

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