24.8.07

"The Open Destiny of Life"

Garth Risk Hallberg, in his tribute to Grace Paley, highlights a wonderful line from her story “A Conversation with My Father”: “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” In the story, a writer is arguing with her father about fiction. He says, “You don't want to recognize it, Tragedy! Plain tragedy! Historical tragedy!” She says, speaking of a character she’s invented, “She could change.”

That remark about “the open destiny of life” stuck with Ann Charters as well—she mentioned it in a conversation with Grace Paley that we published in 2002, using that line for its title. (A longer version appears in The Story and Its Writer.) The conversation highlights Paley’s remarkable generosity and humility, even as regards her own work. Asked about her influences, Paley says she feels she was “influenced by everybody.” As for which of those influences really show up in her own work, she insists: “That’s for the reader to say.” Charters suggests that perhaps the narrator of “A Conversation with My Father” is refusing to face her father’s imminent death, and that may be a theme of the story. Paley doesn’t see it that way, she says—then adds: “Maybe the reader of a particular story knows better than the writer what it means.” (Perhaps it’s no surprise that she was even gracious to tongue-tied fans.)

Paley is especially eloquent when describing her different relationships to poetry and to short stories:
I can give you a definition that can be proven wrong in many ways, but for me it was that in writing poetry I wanted to talk to the world, I wanted to address the world, so to speak. But writing stories, I wanted to get the world to explain itself to me, to speak to me. And for me that was the essential difference between writing poetry and stories, and it still is, in many ways. So I had to get that world to talk to me. I had to reach out to it, a very different thing than writing poems. I had to reach out to the world and get it to tell me what it was all about, because I didn’t understand it. I just didn’t understand. Also, I’d always been very interested in people and told funny stories, and I didn’t have any room for doing that in poems, again because of my own self. My poems were too literary; that’s the real reason.
Paley was a member of PEN for more than forty years, served twenty-one years on the PEN board, and was also on the Advisory Board of PEN America. Francine Prose has written a tribute to her on the PEN website, and PEN's web editors have created an online forum for readers “to share thoughts, words, and memories in honor of Grace Paley.” Her devoted political activism is the subject of this interview, which contains a line almost as wonderful as her remark about the “open destiny of life”: “We always tried to say something illegal.”

2 comments:

dan said...

Fantastic posting. I especially appreciated your including the long quote of Paley's on the difference in writing.
She was such a wonderful light and will be missed.

wanda1234 said...

thanks for sharing....

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