an ordinary day with Grace Paley

We all have heroes. If you don’t have one, find someone. Today.

I keep more than my fair share, so that on any given day, in any situation, I can look to my heroes for encouragement. For example, when I feel like giving up, I turn to Winston Churchill, who inspires me to “never, never, never give in” even when faced with really bad odds.

When I need writing encouragement, I turn to Grace Paley. She’s my literary hero. She shows me that even an ordinary life is worth writing about. Her work brims with characters who are so expertly crafted you’ll see them hanging laundry from a third-floor window in the Bronx. When I read her stories, I understand that even though I haven’t fought wars in the Crimea or been kidnapped by a band of renegades in Australia, my life is worth writing about, providing I have the guts to shine a light on it.

Many years ago now, I signed up for a writing workshop taught by Grace Paley at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I saved for months for this workshop, which was well out of my working-writer’s budget. I remember walking down Commercial Street to get to the Fine Arts Center; a grey dawn breaking, early morning fog weaving in and out of the shops. The merchants swept sand into the street and set chairs at sidewalk tables for the early breakfast crowd. I hugged my new journal to my chest.

At the Fine Arts Work Center, I signed in at an outdoor table and the girl pointed to a steep exterior staircase that led to a second floor conference room with windows that overlooked the sea. This is where we gathered, a handful of writers, waiting for Grace Paley to arrive, with the sea lapping like a dog outside the window. We smiled, coughed a little, introduced ourselves. You could see we all felt a bit shy, even the long, cool writers with their legs stretched out, some of whom had published work in literary presses.

Every once in awhile one of us looked towards the stairs. Voices down below. Was it Grace Paley? yes, it must be. We could hear her chatting with the girl at the table.

Then a slow, steady tread on the stairs. It seemed to go on forever until we caught a glimpse of grey hair, round shoulders, a baggy sweater. Her face was broad and round and friendly, her eyes deeply set in shadow. Her hair was kind of flowzy, caught in the sea breeze and it blew every which way, except across her face. She smiled at us and said, “Well! If that isn’t a flight of stairs all right! Give me a minute to catch my breath.”

Grace Paley.

She’s considered one of the best short story writers of her time. Among many other accolades, she won the 1961 Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and the American Award for Achievement in American Literature. Her 1994 Collected Stories was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

I don’t remember knowing all that then. I just loved her stories. If you are not familiar with her work, here is an excerpt from one of her stories. It’s about a husband leaving his wife.

An Interest in Life
By Grace Paley

My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No-one can tell me it was meant kindly.

“I don’t want you not to have anything for Christmas while I’m away in the army,” he said. “Virginia, please look at it. It comes with this fancy dustpan. It hangs off a stick. Look at it, will you? Are you blind or cross-eyed?”

“Thanks, chum,” I said. I had always wanted a dustpan hooked up that way. It was a good one. My husband doesn’t shop in bargain basements or January sales.

Still and all, in spite of the quality, it was a mean present to give a woman you planned on never seeing again, a person you had children with and got onto all the time, drunk or sober, even when everybody had to get up early in the morning. 

I asked him if he could wait and join the army in a half hour, as I had to get the groceries. I don’t like to leave kids alone in a three-room apartment full of gas and electricity. Fire may break out from a nasty remark. Or the oldest tries to get even with the youngest.

“Just this once,” he said. “But you better try to figure out how to get along without me.”


Grace taught so well, which is rare for a great writer. Very good writers often make terrible teachers. I confess I don’t remember what she said or worse yet, what I said. I tried hard to listen, but I was star struck. I wanted Grace Paley to think I was the best emerging writer she’d ever met. As if Grace Paley was a talent scout.

She gave us a writing prompt and we bent our heads over our papers, but my hand froze. I couldn’t write a single intelligible sentence. I felt like a cardboard cutout of a person. They could tack me to the wall and it would make no difference to me or the other writers. Here was Grace Paley trying her best to teach me something and I was too breathless to take it all in. What would she think?

When it came my time to read, I was so disappointed in what I wrote, the writer’s version of tongue-tied, but I read it anyway. Blah. Blah. Blah. Grade-school composition stuff.

Oh! how I’d love to say that she was blown away by my prose. If only she had said, where have you been?! You don’t even know how good you are! But, that wasn’t the way. She made a few very, very kind comments and then it was time to break for lunch. We talked about where to eat. Grace raved about a codfish sandwich she’d had the day before at one of the outdoor cafes. Delicious! We all filed out.

That afternoon, as I listened to the other writers read their work I felt warmed, sustained in the white hot light of the summer sun over Provincetown. If you haven’t been to P-town you should go. Colors are brighter there; reds more red, blues more blue, the yellowest yellow you’ve ever seen. We sat in a room overlooking the sea with Grace Paley, surrounded by dunes and an incoming tide, and it was all so good. Even if I was suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, it was a fine thing to have met her.

It was the most extraordinary kind of ordinary day.

Find yourself a hero that leaves you breathless. It will do you the world of good.

(Please feel free to share your heroes in the comments section. I’d love to hear about them.)

3 thoughts on “an ordinary day with Grace Paley

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