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Paley-ontology"What I'm saying is that in areas in which you are very smart you might try writing history or criticism, and then you can know and tell how all the mystery of America flows out from under Huck Finn's raft; where you are kind of dumb, write a story or a novel, depending on the depth and breadth of your dumbness."
—Grace Paley, from "The Value of Not Understanding Everything," collected in Just as I Thought
Grace Paley taught me to write.
This, even though I did not love her stories at first. What's not to love? I have no idea. Nothing. I was dumb. Her stories are about tough, smart, funny women, told in a wise voice so lyrical with the clipped, wiseass rhythms of second-generation New York Russian Jewishness that they practically seem sung.
Here's an example. Her story "Wants" begins, "I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library. Hello my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified. He said, What? What life? No life of mine. I said, O.K. I don't argue when there's real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them."
How can you not love that world-weary, vulnerable woman, and the woman who created her?
So, okay. I was a dumb kid when I first read Grace Paley's stories. They were assigned for a class. It was my first good fiction workshop. The book, her first, had the unassuming title of The Little Disturbances of Man, which I took too literally. I was a small-town Ohio boy, raised far from any hotbedsofbrittle irony. I grew up far from anyone who talked like Paley wrote. I was suffused with the solipsistic dumbness that is the province of the college sophomore: I didn't like anything I couldn't "relate to."
When I got to class, I was so dumb that I admitted I couldn't relate to these stories. My professor looked at me like I'd belched or something. He was in love with Paley's stories. He started reading some of them out loud, pieces here and there, and he was really, really into it, and I began to hear what he was feeling, and, boy, did I realize I had a lot to learn.
What I didn't know about books could have filled a shelf full of them. I hoped it someday would.
"There's probably a natural grammar at the tip of your tongue. You may not believe it, but if you say what's on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends, you'll probably say something beautiful. Still, if you weren't a tough, recalcitrant kid, that language may have been destroyed by the tongues of schoolteachers who were ashamed of interesting homes, inflection, and language, and left them all for correct usage." —Grace Paley, from "Some Notes on Teaching, Probably Spoken," collected in Just as I Thought
When I was in grad school, there was a course called "Visiting Writers." It consisted of two one-week seminars. That semester, one of them would be taught by Grace Paley.
I had by then realized the error of my ways. I was glad for the chance to be in a workshop she taught. She was one of those rare writers whose reputation as a teacher preceded her. The time and passion she invested in her teaching, rumor had it, was why she'd only published three slim books of stories. That, and her political activism, in feminist and antiwar causes. She even put that on her dust-jacket bio. I was beginning to love this woman.
I submitted a story to her workshop. It was pretty bad; she was kind. In her workshop, she has people read their stories aloud. For most teachers, this would be lazy, this would not work. But Paley is such a listener! She closes her eyes as you read, and when you're done she can recite your story's rare good parts! After a while it rubs off. After that week, I was forevermore a better reader and a more attentive listener.
The day she left, I reread all three of her story collections (now conveniently brought together in her Collected Stories), all in one day. As disparate as the stories are, they cohere like a gracefully elliptical novel, recurring characters and all.
The next day, Paley's sardonic voice chiming in my head, I sat down and wrote another story, the first I ever tried from a woman's perspective. It was counterfeit Paley, true, but it was the best story I'd written up to then. Two weeks later I sold it to a national magazine.
Later, I would tap into my own natural grammar. But spending those couple weeks inside Paley's made me grow. Her fictional world — geographically small, mostly domestic, mostly New York stories — had made mine larger. It could happen to anybody.
Paley is retired from teaching now, maybe even retired from fiction writing (she hasn't published a new story for ten years). I'm a college professor myself now, and a semester doesn't go by without me drawing a little bit on the things she taught me that long-ago week.
So it's with real joy that I read Paley's new book, Just as I Thought, a delightful collection of essays that she wrote over the past 30 years. Many are personal, many are political, and many are about how those are the same things. Many are about teaching, and taught me plenty. For anyone who wonders what else Paley has been up to all these years, the pieces about her political activism provide a vivid answer, a side of her that she only rarely wrote directly about in her fiction.
As I read the book, it made me want to go back to the stories, to read them end-to-end again, to see. "I think you've overrated me somewhat," she writes in the essay "Imagining the Present," "but if there's ever a time in your life when you like to be overrated, it's when you're old. I thank you for doing it."
I have not overrated you, Ms. Paley.
I am the one who should be thanking you.
Mark Winegardner, a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University, is the author of four books, including, most recently, the novel The Veracruz Blues.