Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Morning Reading: Grace Paley: "The whole point is to know the facts."


from the Paris Review:

excerpt:

INTERVIEWER
How do stories begin for you?

PALEY
A lot of them begin with a sentence—they all begin with language. It sounds dopey to say that, but it’s true. Very often one sentence is absolutely resonant. A story can begin with someone speaking. “I was popular in certain circles,” for example; an aunt of mine said that, and it hung around in my head for a long time. Eventually I wrote a story, “Goodbye and Good Luck,” that began with that line, though it had nothing to do with my aunt. Another example: “There were two husbands disappointed by eggs,” which is the first sentence of “The Used-Boy Raisers.” I was at the house of a friend of mine, thirty-five years ago, and there were her two husbands complaining about the eggs. It was just right—so I went home and began the story, though I didn’t finish it for months. I’m almost invariably stuck after one page or one paragraph—at which point I have to begin thinking about what the story could possibly be about. I begin by writing paragraphs that don’t have an immediate relation to a plot. The sound of the story comes first.

INTERVIEWER
In “A Conversation With My Father” you make a lot of disparaging remarks about plot.

PALEY
Ever since then, everybody says I have no plot, which gets me really mad. Plot is nothing; plot is simply time, a timeline. All our stories have timelines. One thing happens, then another thing happens. What I was really talking about in that story was having a plot settled in your mind: this is the way the story’s going to go. In the next thirty pages or so, this will happen, this will happen, this will happen. That’s what I meant.

INTERVIEWER
So you would never start a story with the ending in mind?

PALEY
No. When the ending comes to me, that’s when I know I’m going to finish the story. Usually it’s around the middle. And then I write the end. And then I change it.

...

INTERVIEWER
How do you know a story is working?

PALEY
I read it aloud a lot, and that helps me. It’s not so useful for a writer of novels, but for me reading aloud as I work helps me know if it’s right.

INTERVIEWER
What about a story like “Lavinia: An Old Story,” written in a black voice—did you read that out loud as you wrote it?

PALEY
I did read it aloud. I don’t know if I could write that story now. I was closer then to a couple of older black women as well as my own grandmother—whose story was exactly the same, which was one of my reasons for writing it. I was able to read the story to them—check it out in some way. There are other stories that may have been risky. These were recently read by some students in James Monroe High School in the Bronx where nearly all the kids were African-American. Not being in any political group yet—hopefully they will be—they weren’t bothered by my writing “Lavinia: An Old Story” or “The Little Girl” at all. They argued a few particulars, but were harder on the narrator than I was.

INTERVIEWER
What about people who criticize you for writing in a black voice?

PALEY
Some have been critical. I know the politics of it, but I know I act out of real feeling and considerable respect for the person. That’s why I want to do it—not to show off. It’s true that in “The Little Girl” I do have a pretty terrible black character—a rapist, in fact. It’s not as though I only deal with sweet situations.

But what’s a writer for? The whole point is to put yourself into other lives, other heads—writers have always done that. If you screw up, so someone will tell you, that’s all. I think men can write about women and women can write about men. The whole point is to know the facts. Men have so often written about women without knowing the reality of their lives, and worse, without being interested in that daily reality.

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To read the interview in its entirety, click here.

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2 comments:

Lou said...

I like to come back and look at that photo of Grace Paley.

Anonymous said...

Me, too!

 
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