Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Grace Paley, Celebrated Wondrously

I attended a celebration of Grace Paley's life last night at Broadway Books. What a fun event. It's too bad the format wouldn't work for readings normally because the variety of both information given and speakers was so refreshing.

Judith Arcana (Paley's biographer), Miriam Budner, and Nancy LaPaglia hosted the evening, with Ursula K. Le Guin, Elisabeth Linder, Ruth Gundle and Judith Barrington, Rebecca Gundle, Marjorie Sandor, Elinor Langer, Paulann Peterson, Martha Roth, and Gwyn Kirk sharing Paley's work and their memories of her. Every couple of speakers or so, Budner asked the audience members questions about their relationships with Paley. What resulted was not only a memorial to a person but a reading and a discussion of writing, activism, and strong living. A percentage of purchases made last night at the bookstore went to the War Resisters League, which Paley was a member of for almost fifty years.

I took some notes, but they don't cover the full event, and I also need to offer apologies for any misquotes (and certainly the language of my notes doesn't convey the thoughtfulness and poetry of the speakers' words). Around taking hasty notes, I was cutting the cake and unwrapping the bread for a post-discussion feast it sounds like Paley would have loved.

*Paley said that few paid her work any attention until "women lifted her" by buying her books, etc. (Arcana)
*Brian Doyle's recent Oregonian column suggests one of the worthy ways one could spend one's kicker check is on Le Guin's complete works. (introduction to Le Guin speaking)
*To Paley, stupidity equals refusal to hear; adults should raise children righteously up, meaning that they should speak truth and do no harm to both those who are familiar to them and those who are strangers; a hunk of bread is an important thing to eat daily (her father ended every meal with a hunk of bread); always remember love. (Le Guin)
*Paley arrived at a pre-event party with bare legs, and the host (Linder) rejoiced and ran back upstairs to her bedroom to remove her own nylons. It's sad that we are no longer able to ask Paley questions, but what is truly awful is that we can no longer receive her answers. (Linder)
*Budner told the story of the time she was in a cab with Paley, and she had just worked up her courage to say, in just the right way, how much Paley's works had meant to her when Paley interrupted her to speak to the cab driver about broken stoplights. Budner said she suddenly felt as though she were in one of Paley's short stories, realizing how difficult and surprising it is to care.
*Paley preferred the word storytelling over fiction. She told her writing students to think of and discuss, without putting pen to paper, a story. A couple days later, she asked them to think of the story underneath that original story. On the fifth day of class, she asked them to consider the story underneath the second story. Some amazing, truly unexpected stories emerged. Don't lie to the reader. That's enough concrete; anything more is just stone. Compassion should be in the same room as hard truths. You should interrupt—don't you know how to have a conversation? (Ruth Gundle and Barrington)
*Kirk explained that she thought she had read Paley's stories, but she had of course read them in her British accent, etc. She discovered that she hasn't truly read the stories until she heard Paley read them. (And there is a good plug for the importance of readings.)

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