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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How To Write a Story

This is a story about how to write a story. It has a totally different title: it's named A Conversation with My Father, and is by Grace Paley, part of a collection published in 1974, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. I found the story on the web and it says a lot about the way Grace Paley was writing her stories. Here you go:

My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs any more. It still floods his head with brainy light. But it won't let his legs carry the weight of his body around the house. Despite my metaphors, this muscle failure is not due to his old heart, he says, but to a potassium shortage. Sitting on one pillow, leaning on three, he offers last-minute advice and makes a request.
     "I would like you to write a simple story just once more," he says, "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."
     I say, "Yes, why not? That's possible." I want to please him, though I don't remember writing that way. 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.
     Finally I thought of a story that had been happening for a couple of years right across the street. I wrote it down, then read it aloud. "Pa," I said, "how about this? Do you mean something like this?"

     Once in my time there was a woman and she had a son. They lived nicely, in a small apartment in Manhattan. This boy at about fifteen became a junkie, which is not unusual in our neighborhood. In order to maintain her close friendship with him, she became a junkie too. She said it was part of the youth culture, with which she felt very much at home. After a while, for a number or reasons, the boy gave it all up and left the city and his mother in disgust. Hopeless and alone, she grieved. We all visit her.

     "O.K., Pa, that's it," I said, "an unadorned and miserable tale."
     "But that's not what I mean," my father said. "You misunderstood me on purpose. You know there's a lot more to it. You know that. You left everything out. Turgenev wouldn't do that. Chekhov wouldn't do that. There are in fact Russian writers you never heard of, you don't have an inkling of, as good as anyone, who can write a plain ordinary story, who would not leave out what you have left out. I object not to facts but to people sitting in trees talking senselessly, voices from who knows where..."
     "Forget that one, Pa, what have I left out now? In this one?"
     "Her looks, for instance."
     "Oh. Quite handsome, I think. Yes."
     "Her hair?"
     "Dark, with heavy braids, as though she were a girl or a foreigner."
     "What were her parents like, her stock? That she became such a person. It's interesting, you know."
     "From out of town. Professional people. The first to be divorced in their county. How's that? Enough?" I asked.
     "With you, it's all a joke," he said. "What about the boy's father? Why didn't you mention him? Who was he? Or was the boy born out of wedlock?"
     "Yes," I said. "He was born out of wedlock."
     "For Godsakes, doesn't anyone in your stories get married? Doesn't anyone have the time to run down to City Hall before they jump into bed?"
     "No," I said. "In real life, yes. But in my stories, no."
     "Why do you answer me like that?"
     "Oh, Pa, this is a simple story about a smart woman who came to N.Y. C. full of interest love trust excitement very up to date, and about her son, what a hard time she had in this world. Married or not, it's of small consequence."
     "It is of great consequence," he said.
     "O.K.," I said.
     "O.K. O.K. yourself," he said, "but listen. I believe you that she's good-looking, but I don't think she was so smart."
     "That's true," I said. "Actually that's the trouble with stories. People start out fantastic, you think they're extraordinary, but it turns out as the work goes along, they're just average with a good education. Sometimes the other way around, the person's a kind of dumb innocent, but he outwits you and you can't even think of an ending good enough."
     "What do you do then?" he asked. He had been a doctor for a couple of decades and then an artist for a couple of decades and he's still interested in details, craft, technique.
     "Well, you just have to let the story lie around till some agreement can be reached between you and the stubborn hero."
     "Aren't you talking silly, now?" he asked. "Start again," he said. "It so happens I'm not going out this evening. Tell the story again. See what you can do this time."
     "O.K.," I said. "But it's not a five-minute job." Second attempt:

     Once, across the street from us, there was a fine handsome woman, our neighbor. She had a son whom she loved because she'd known him since birth (in helpless chubby infancy, and in the wrestling, hugging ages, seven to ten, as well as earlier and later). This boy, when he fell into the fist of adolescence, became a junkie. He was not a hopeless one. He was in fact hopeful, an ideologue and successful converter. With his busy brilliance, he wrote persuasive articles for his high-school newspaper. Seeking a wider audience, using important connections, he drummed into Lower Manhattan newsstand distribution a periodical called Oh! Golden Horse!
     In order to keep him from feeling guilty (because guilt is the stony heart of nine tenths of all clinically diagnosed cancers in America today, she said), and because she had always believed in giving bad habits room at home where one could keep an eye on them, she too became a junkie. Her kitchen was famous for a while - a center for intellectual addicts who knew what they were doing. A few felt artistic like Coleridge and others were scientific and revolutionary like Leary. Although she was often high herself, certain good mothering reflexes remained, and she saw to it that there was lots of orange juice around and honey and milk and vitamin pills. However, she never cooked anything but chili, and that no more than once a week. She explained, when we talked to her, seriously, with neighborly concern, that it was her part in the youth culture and she would rather be with the young, it was an honor, than with her own generation.
     One week, while nodding through an Antonioni film, this boy was severely jabbed by the elbow of a stern and proselytizing girl, sitting beside him. She offered immediate apricots and nuts for his sugar level, spoke to him sharply, and took him home.
     She had heard of him and his work and she herself published, edited, and wrote a competitive journal called Man Does Live By Bread Alone. In the organic heat of her continuous presence he could not help but become interested once more in his muscles, his arteries, and nerve connections. In fact he began to love them, treasure them, praise them with funny little songs in Man Does Live...

the fingers of my flesh transcend
my transcendental soul
the tightness in my shoulders end
my teeth have made me whole

     To the mouth of his head (that glory of will and determination) he brought hard apples, nuts, wheat germ, and soy-bean oil. He said to his old friends, From now on, I guess I'll keep my wits about me. I'm going on the natch. He said he was about to begin a spiritual deep-breathing journey. How about you too, Mom? he asked kindly.
     His conversion was so radiant, splendid, that neighborhood kids his age began to say that he had never been a real addict at all, only a journalist along for the smell of the story. The mother tried several times to give up what had become without her son and his friends a lonely habit. This effort only brought it to supportable levels. The boy and his girl took their electronic mimeograph and moved to the bushy edge of another borough. They were very strict. They said they would not see her again until she had been off drugs for sixty days.
     At home alone in the evening, weeping, the mother read and reread the seven issues of Oh! Golden Horse! They seemed to her as truthful as ever. We often crossed the street to visit and console. But if we mentioned any of our children who were at college or in the hospital or dropouts at home, she would cry out, My baby! My baby! and burst into terrible, face-scarring, time-consuming tears. The End.

     First my father was silent, then he said, "Number One: You have a nice sense of humor. Number Two: I see you can't tell a plain story. So don't waste time." Then he said sadly, "Number Three: I suppose that means she was alone, she was left like that, his mother. Alone. Probably sick?"
     I said, "Yes."
     "Poor woman. Poor girl, to be born in a time of fools, to live among fools. The end. The end. You were right to put that down. The end."
     I didn't want to argue, but I had to say, "Well, it is not necessarily the end, Pa."
     "Yes," he said, "what a tragedy. The end of a person."
     "No, Pa," I begged him. "It doesn't have to be. She's only about forty. She could be a hundred different things in this world as time goes on. A teacher or a social worker. An ex-junkie! Sometimes it's better than having a master's in education."
     "Jokes," he said. "As a writer that's your main trouble. You don't want to recognize it, Tragedy! Plain tragedy! Historical tragedy! No hope. The end."
     "Oh, Pa," I said, "She could change."
     "In your own life, too, you have to look it in the face." He took a couple of nitroglycerin, "Turn to five," he said, pointing to the dial on the oxygen tank. He inserted the tubes into his nostrils and breathed deep. He closed his eyes and said, "No."
     I had promised the family to always let him have the last word when arguing, but in this case I had a different responsibility. That woman lives across the street. She's my knowledge and my invention. I'm sorry for her. I'm not going to leave her there in that house crying, (Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity.)
     Therefore: She did change. Of course her son never came home again, But right now, she's the receptionist in a storefront community clinic in the East Village. Most of the customers are young people, some old friends. The head doctor has said to her, "If we only had three people in this clinic with your experiences..."
     "The doctor said that?" My father took the oxygen tubes out of his nostrils and said, "Jokes, Jokes again."      "No, Pa, it could really happen that way, it's a funny world nowadays."
     "No," he said, "Truth first, She will slide back. A person must have character, She does not."
     "No, Pa," I said. "That's it. She's got a job, Forget it. She's in that storefront working."
     "How long will it be?" he asked. "Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?"

(Grace Paley)



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