Monday, October 31, 2016

MB Caschetta's Encounters with Grace Paley

In the 29th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, MB Caschetta, author of Pretend I'm Your Friend (Engine Books), remembers the simple question Grace Paley suggested writers ask of their work.

I met Grace Paley twice when I was a teenager.

Once I heard her read at the library in my provincial hometown in upstate New York, and another time, I sat in a workshop with her. This was after I’d escaped to college, where I hoped to follow in the footsteps of famous alumnae like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, and Mary McCarthy.

As undergraduate students in the creative writing program (which is sadly now defunct), we met a lot of writers and tried on their styles in workshops: minimal Amy Hempel, angular Madison Smartt Bell, noble William Trevor, mysterious Carole Maso, fragile Brett Singer, bold Ellen Currie.

But Grace Paley was singular.

She inspired us to write like ourselves, even though (or especially because) we had yet to become the writers we were going to be.

By the time Paley came to campus, we’d read every story she’d written; we’d studied her collected works; we’d spoken of her in terms reserved for rock stars. Up close and personal, when she arrived on campus, we admired everything about her: her twinkle, her sneakers, the stain on her shirt. She might as well have been Jimi Hendrix.

“How do know when you’ve finished a story?” someone asked.

We were in a classroom workshop, crowded with extra teachers and students. There were probably 40 of us gathered around her, breathing in unison, waiting on answers.

She considered the question before picking up a page of her own writing. She pointed to the first word: “Is this word true?”

She looked at us, pointing to the next. “Is this word true?”

She snapped her gum and winked (At me? No, at the person behind me.) “What about this one? And this one? Is this word true?”

In that moment, I knew I was doomed, or blessed, or whatever it is that binds a person preposterously to a life of stalking the truth through fiction.

I probably didn’t stand much of a chance anyway: stories had always written me. One summer, just a kid, I penned a complete novel in a series of spiral notebooks on the front porch. I was lopsidedly verbal, terrible at everything else, obsessed with trying to get on the page what no one in my family seemed capable of hearing or seeing.

On the way out of the classroom, Paley stopped me. “Not bad, kid.”

It was my short story we’d read in the workshop.

I’ve thought of this compliment many times over the years. I still marvel that I managed to get away from my troubled childhood and land in a magical world where writing stories was offered as an attainable, respectable career. Even during the miserable times I wished I could be something else, (anything! please God!) other than a writer, thinking of Grace Paley always brought me back to being grateful and humble.

I survived a couple of rough decades thinking this way, even when the rejections piled up, the stories stumped me, the novels got sidetracked by paid writing, and publishing a book seemed impossible. Through it all, I continued to sit at my desk, searching for the next true word, and the next after that.

When I went back for a short stint to teach the short story in that very same classroom, years later, I was stunned to find that young writers “didn’t get” Grace Paley. “Too concrete,” they said.

Their rock stars were from my generation, it turned out, and just as worthy of admiration: Elizabeth McCracken and Junot Díaz.

The last time I saw Grace Paley, she was reading in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where I had been living. I reminded her of this story, but she didn’t remember it—or me.

“That’s okay,” I told her. “It only has to matter to me.”

She crackled her gum and gave me a smile.

“That’s good,” she said. “Remember that for me.”