I'm still in Los Angeles — but now I'm outside. Nice, amazing how the air can actually feel soft — I know there's a lot of pollution here, but compared to where I live in New York City, it feels as if it's been Purelled.
So whenever I travel — I employ a series of "self comfort measures" to deal with the stress which begins long before I ever leave home. Stress #1: Why did I say yes, why did I think leaving the house was a good idea or even possible? Stress #2: Given that I said yes, how do I now organize and edit life so that it fits into a suitcase? Taking a cue from Martha Stewart, I pack everything in Zip-Loc bags so when someone's after-shave breaks and soaks my suitcase at least I don't spend the week smelling like Old Spice. But despite my measures, there are things that make me nervous — for example the airport pop quiz that never changes. Every time you check in at the airport the ticket agent asks, "Did you pack you own bag?" and as much as I'd like to return the question with a question, i.e.: what percentage of travelers don't pack their own bags, and if they don't pack their bags, who does? Because I don't know about you, but no one I know has a bag packer. So yes, I say politely I packed my own bag. When did you pack your bag? "This morning," I say, when actually I packed it and unpacked it all week but this morning just before I left I once again dumped everything out, re-edited as though it was a short story, took out one shirt, two pairs of socks, and a plaid shirt that I've never worn before, so why start now.
"Fine," the man says, taking the bag. And then he says "you may progress," to the "security check point" and I do. I have dressed accordingly, wearing shoes that I can slide on and off without sitting down, my laptop is in my purse, etc, but despite my best efforts something about me sets off the machinery and so a "female checker" gives me a weird little massage and again, I am told I can progress. By now I'm thirsty and my shirt is still clean, so I buy a four-dollar cup of coffee, take a sip, spill it on myself and then throw out the rest. Now, my imagination kicks in and I start thinking that next time maybe the trick is to wear nice underwear — sporty more than sexy, and design dresses made out of the new XXXL Zip-Loc bags — easier for security and also any coffee spilled would just roll right off.
My cell phone rings. "Are you in?" a friend asks, as though getting through the airport is akin to getting backstage at a Led Zeppelin concert. "I'm in," I say, "and it's going well, my suitcase wasn't overweight, my shoes have no explosive residue and I really think it's going to be a good day."
On board the plane, there's a woman who looks like one of my first writing teachers, Shirley Yarnall, whose class I took at American University about a hundred years ago. It was in Mrs. Yarnall's class that I began writing short stories, and after I'd written two of them she told me it was time I started a novel. I began immediately writing 170 pages set on a ranch in South Dakota, a place and subject I knew nothing about. I think maybe I'd been reading a lot of John Steinbeck or Larry McMurtry the week I started it. The good news is I knew enough to stop it at some point shortly after I began, I knew no more about writing a novel than I did about flying a 747. It was shortly after that class that I "auditioned" for Linda Pastan's graduate poetry seminar at American University — it took a lot of nerve considering I'd never taken English 101 (and still haven't and the only poems I'd written were song lyrics). Still, Pastan saw a glimmer of hope (and didn't seem totally dismayed when I named Richard Thomas as my favorite poet). I actually stood in line to get an autographed copy — and can still recall a verse or two. Anyway, Pastan was a terrific teacher and made me so aware of the significance of each word in relation to the next, and the past and the one above. The idea that in some writing programs students can't take classes across genres drives me crazy — how can a young writer fully commit to being a story writer or a poet without having dipped into the other, either by choice or mandate? Anyway, at American I also had Doris Grumbach as a teacher and from there moved on to Sarah Lawrence where I studied under Grace Paley, my mentor (more on that in a moment) and from there to the infamous, Iowa, where I had the amazing good fortune to end up in James Tate's Craft of Fiction — reading Peter Handke and Bruno Schulz for the first time and in Angela Carter's workshop. If you don't know her work, look it up immediately — she was smarter than smart, sometimes hard to read, but wonderfully inspiring. And she had the most magnificent habit or sort of humming, or ummming or hmmming unconsciously as she was thinking, forming her thoughts and opinions. She died of cancer in 1992 at 51 years old — her obituary in the UK Guardian described her as "...[The] opposite of parochial. Nothing, for her, was outside the pale: she wanted to know about everything and everyone, and every place and every word. She relished life and language hugely, and reveled in the diverse."
At the end of last August, at 84 years old, Grace Paley died. I was asked to write a bit about her — here's what I said:
Grace Paley was the moral compass for readers and writers struggling to make sense of how the political and social changes of the 1950s through the 1980s changed their lives. She was passionate, opinionated and eloquent. As much as she argued with the world around her, she embraced and celebrated it in her poems and short stories. Like the Star Wars Jedi Master Yoda, Grace Paley was elfin, wise and deeply magical. She was a bit of a postmodern wizard, filled with knowledge and compassion, entirely absent of artifice or pretense. She never tried to be someone — she simply was.
Too often described as a "writer's writer," most likely because she wrote short stories and poems, she was wrongly thought small in a world that too often celebrates the large, male-authored novel. Her stories, intimate kitchen dramas, were mostly about women's lives — their relationships, marriages, children, and reconciling oneself to the inescapable disappointment of human fallibility. At once personal and political, her fictions were wry and inimitable. When remembering her, I think of goodness and faith — her maiden name was Goodside and her famous fictional mirror was a recurrent character called Faith. In 1985, the author and now New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote in the Washington Post: "Her short stories are a kind of New York chamber music in which the instruments are the voices of the city — more specifically Greenwich Village, more specifically 11th Street between Sixth and Seventh."
Paley's work was deceptively conversational in tone; her precisely tuned dialogue lays bare the relationships between women and their men. As with Raymond Carver, who also wrote short stories and poems at once minimal and maximal, but no novels, people seemed to hold back their praise, waiting for that single big book as though sheer number of pages were the measure of a writer's weight. People said that Paley was a slow writer of "modest output," which is frankly insulting. She wasn't slow — she was busy! For her, writing was just one of the many things that happened in the midst of life that was filled with, well, life. She wrote as a single mother raising a son and a daughter, as a teacher and as an activist whose activities included being jailed for her opposition to the Vietnam war, travelling to Hanoi on a peace mission, helping found the Women's Pentagon Action and the Greenwich Village Peace Centre, and being dubbed one of the "White House Eleven," having been arrested in 1978 for placing an anti-nuclear banner on the White House lawn. She was an ardent feminist — who loved men — a "combative pacifist, and a cooperative anarchist."
By the time I arrived at Sarah Lawrence College in the fall of 1983, Grace had already seen hundreds like me, the aspiring writer come to sit at the feet of the master. "You'll never get into her class," other students told me. "She's been away for a year and everyone wants to study with her." I was working on my first novel, I'd already had a play produced, I was a transfer student, older than the others, and I'd lived a little and been miserable a lot.
Grace took me into her class — and under her wing. In class she spoke of writing "the truth according to the character" and the importance of voice. Grace often retold the story of how, at ninteen, desperate to be a poet, she took a course taught by W. H. Auden. When she used the word "trousers" in a poem, Auden asked why she was writing in British English, why didn't she just say "pants"? Paley explained that she thought that was just what writers did, and then never did it again. She was my teacher at Sarah Lawrence and forever after. I remember being at her apartment on West 11th Street, freshly graduated from college, waiting to go over a short story I'd written. Her telephone rang (which it did frequently). "Hello," Grace said, brusquely. "Oh yeah, hi how are you." She talked quickly, like someone who couldn't be bothered, and then slowly her voice and face relaxed, "No kidding? Really?" She listened and talked and the call ended with "Yes, of course. I'll be there. Count me in. I'm writing it down." She hung up and turned to me. "Why did you let me say yes?" she asked accusatorily. So many people wanted her, needed her — just her presence made even the most difficult situations fun. And without a pause, she turned her attention to my story, "Looking For Johnny," about a kidnapped young boy. Grace reread the story and looked at me. "Clearly he's not the right kid, not the kid the kidnapper wanted, and so he has to return him." She was right. I went home and spent the next week making it happen.
I think of Grace Paley and how, when I first read her stories, I couldn't really understand them. They were lost on me and I didn't know why. And then I borrowed a record from the library, a record of Paley reading "Goodbye and Good Luck" and "A Conversation With My Father," and suddenly, listening to the sound of the writer's voice reading her own work, her intonation, like an incantation, made it all perfectly clear. I think of her story "A Conversation With My Father," written so many years ago, a well-rehearsed argument between a dying father and his spirited author-daughter. The 86-year-old father lying in bed says to his daughter, "I would like you to write a simple story just once more... the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next." And the daughter says, "Yes, why not? That's possible." And while Grace Paley never really wrote a simple story, I think of her fictional mirror, Faith, and I imagine a story Grace never wrote, Faith, at 84 the whole of her life lived, now sick with breast cancer — what would she want to know, where would she like to leave us? I think of Grace in bed dying in Thetford, Vermont, with her husband, her children and their families around her. Grace Paley, hardly a writer's writer, or a woman writer, but more a force of nature. Grace Paley, short story writer, poet, peace activist, feminist, wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, mentor. She taught me not just how to be a parent, a citizen and a writer — she taught me how to live.
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A. M. Homes is the author of several books of fiction. She has been awarded a Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Visit her website at www.amhomesbooks.com.
Books mentioned in this post
A. M. Homes is the author of The Mistress's Daughter