Master short story writer and political activist Grace Paley died of breast cancer yesterday, at her home in Vermont. This is a huge loss for the short story community.
I met Grace Paley once when I was a student at NYU, and she came to talk to a craft class I was taking with Paule Marshall. The students had prepared lists of complex questions to ask her, about how she created her characters, how she crafted her sentences, how she did all the magical things she accomplished on the page. To every question she simply answered, “I just do it.” I remember that some of the students became annoyed, but I left that room feeling completely enlightened. What had seemed like a complicated, impossible-to-enter world had been made simple. She had opened the door. You can not second guess yourself or try to plan or over analyze. All that has to come later in the process. While creating, the most important thing is to stop thinking and just do it. Just write. For years I’ve had that quote tacked over my desk. And I’ve always kept her collected stories nearby, next to Flannery O’Connor and Amy Hempel.
“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.
The librarian said $32 and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had these books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.”
We owe Grace Paley much. Her humor, her good sense, and her spirit will be greatly missed.