Grace Paley: A Woman Of Her Words

By Leora Skolkin-Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 25, 2007

My friends and I used to call Grace Paley’s West Village apartment “headquarters” because she was the mother of our needy female selves. And we all needed her maternity so much.

I first met her decades ago when I was an insecure sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College. I had, under my arm, my first attempt at a novel — a 200-page disaster that I had been toting around campus like a shield against the armies of “others.” It was 1972, and I dared not let anyone know how frightened, how terribly inadequate, I felt.

I pretended, instead, as I am sure now so many of us did back then, to know everything about art, politics, sex and my “inner” self.

At Sarah Lawrence we had to interview with the teachers with whom we wanted to study. Grace wasn’t very famous then. She had written “The Little Disturbances of Man” but had a wonderful, romantic mystique about her. She was real Greenwich Village bohemian. She wore no makeup, a girlish shift that she must have bought on sale somewhere, and bright red Keds. Her long hair was held in a ponytail with a rubber band.

I walked into her office armed with my “novel,” and trembling. She looked at me, leaned back in her chair and said: “No kidding.”

Then the phone rang and she answered it. “Yeah, yeah,” she said into the phone. “I got all these kids I have to interview for my class . . . See ya tonight at the meeting.”

I turned redder and redder. When I finally collapsed into tears, I heard the phone slam down. Then I felt the arms of this 5-2 woman, those stocky but solid arms, envelop me. Her face had become suddenly serious, as if redrawn by an invisible painter. “I was [messed] up, too,” she said.

“Believe me. At NYU, you know, they kicked me out of my writing class and sent me home. . . . I liked sitting on the stoop a lot instead of doing homework, hanging around the block, talking to my friends a little too much,” she continued in a story she would tell many times. “But listen, that’s where I got all my stories! Listening to people talking . . . listening, listening, listening.”

She had been born Grace Goodside, the daughter of Jewish parents whose surname was Anglicized from Gutseit on emigrating from Ukraine. Grace’s father, Isaac, learned English by reading the works of Charles Dickens, she once told me, and later he became a medical doctor. Known for being a charismatic, fiery and quite lively storyteller himself, he ushered their family into what she would later term “America’s middle classes.”

In the early 1940s, Grace studied with W.H. Auden at the New School for Social Research, and his influence on her was profound. “Find your voice and then the voices of your neighborhood, the voices of your immigrant family, women and men around your neighborhood,” he told her.

James Joyce’s “Dubliners” was also a great influence, and some say Grace portrayed New York as Joyce had portrayed Dublin, full of multicultural genes and voices and irreverence.

But her life was fodder, too. He first marriage broke up shortly after her two children, Nora and Danny, were born. Grace became a typist, a babysitter, a secretary. It was from these first shocks of struggle and desperately trying to survive, financially and emotionally, that she said she learned to listen to the “stories of women.” Women abandoned by husbands, welfare women, housewives, women as lovers. She listened and watched and wrote stories about them and herself. But the rejection of editors was her only reward.

One day she babysat for a Doubleday editor. She left her pile of stories on his kitchen table. He found them and read a few, enough to decide to take them to his chief editor, who then asked Grace to write a “few more like this.” It was from those efforts that her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), was compiled and published by Doubleday.

She would later marry Robert Nichols, a landscape architect and himself a poet, short-story writer and novelist who remained her husband until her death this week at 84.

She and Bob traveled through Latin America, immersing themselves in the turbulent politics of Chile. They shared a passion for the intersections between politics and literature and would later form Glad Day Books. (It was Grace who would edit and publish my novel Edges: O Israel, O Palestine. And she had even begun to help me return to that first work of mine from college.)

Grace joined the War Resisters League and served as a delegate to the 1974 World Peace Conference in Moscow, and in 1978 she was arrested as one of the “White House Eleven” for unfurling an anti-nuclear banner on the White House lawn.

Perhaps it was Grace’s activism, her idealism in other spheres, that formed many of her beliefs about literature, too. Writing was not there to make people feel good and sell copies. It was there as an expression of social and personal turmoil, as truth, and even as a disturbance in the skies — dark, troubling, discomforting. She did not believe in pandering to the major media, in writers becoming stars instead of truth-tellers.

She also rejected the idea held by many that she was a political writer. That notion was ridiculous, she told the New York Times many years ago: “I mean, in Europe, for a writer not to be political is peculiar, and in this country for a writer to be political is considered some sort of aberration, or time waste. I’m not writing a history of famous people. I am interested in a history of everyday life.”

She wrote in “A Conversation With My Father”: “I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: ‘There was a woman . . . ‘ followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised, not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”

Maybe that is why my arrival at her office so long ago with pages of chaos on my way to becoming a novelist never seemed to daunt her.

I would like to think that perhaps she felt the same about me as she felt about the characters in her stories.