Grace Paley

American writer and activist

Grace Paley (December 11 1922August 22 2007) was a Jewish American short story writer, poet, teacher, and political activist. The 1994 edition of her Collected Stories was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

QuotesEdit

  • We made for him a great dinner of honor. At this dinner I said to him, for the last time, I thought, "Goodbye, dear friend, topic of my life, now we part." And to myself I said further: Finished. This is your lonesome bed. A lady what they call fat and fifty. You made it personally. From this lonesome bed you will finally fall to a bed not so lonesome, only crowded with a million bones.
    • "Goodbye and Good Luck" (1959)
  • Peter sighed. He turned the palms of his hands up as though to guess at rain. Anna knew him, theme and choreography. The sunshiny spring afternoon seeped through his fingers. He looked up at the witnessing heavens to keep what he could. He dropped his arms and let the rest go.
    • "The Pale Pink Roast" (1959)
  • Like a good and happy man increasing his virtue, he kissed her. She did not move away from him. She remained in the embrace of his right arm, her face nuzzling his shoulder, her eyes closed. He tipped her chin to look and measure opportunity. She could not open her eyes. Honorably he searched, but on her face he met no quarrel.
    • "The Pale Pink Roast" (1959)
  • In no time at all his cheerful face appeared at the door of the spring dusk. In the street among peaceable strangers he did a handstand. Then easy and impervious, in full control, he cartwheeled eastward into the source of night.
    • "The Pale Pink Roast" (1959)
  • I thank you, Papa, for your kindness. It is true about me to this day. I am foolish but I am not a fool.
    • "The Loudest Voice" (1959)
  • I brought up lonesomeness again, and not being understood at all except by some women everybody hated.
    • "The Loudest Voice" (1959)
  • I am ambitious, but it's a long-range thing with me. I have my confidential sights on a star, but there's half a lifetime to get to it. Meanwhile I keep my eyes open and am well dressed.
    • "The Contest" (1959)
  • My last girl was Jewish, which is often a warm kind of girl, concerned about food intake and employability. They don't like you to work too hard, I understand, until you're hooked and then, you bastard, sweat!
    • "The Contest" (1959)
  • With a few grasping, kind words and a modern gimmick, she hoped to breathe eternity into a mortal matter, love.
    • "The Contest" (1959)
  • I sighed in and I groaned out, so as to melt a certain pain around my heart. A steel ring like arthritis, at my age.
    • "An Interest in Life" (1959)
  • I was happy, but I am now in possession of knowledge that this is wrong. Happiness isn't so bad for a woman. She gets fatter, she gets older, she could lie down, nuzzling a regiment of men and little kids, she could just die of the pleasure. But men are different, they have to own money, or they have to be famous, or everybody on the block has too look up to them from the cellar stairs.
    • "An Interest in Life" (1959)
  • It is still hard to believe that a man who sends out the Ten Commandments every year for a Christmas card can be so easy buttoning and unbuttoning.
    • "An Interest in Life" (1959)
  • He settles in the kitchen because the children are asleep all over the rest of the house. I unknot his tie and offer him a cold sandwich. He raps my backside, paying attention to the bounce. I walk around him as though he were a Maypole, kissing as I go.
    • "An Interest in Life" (1959)
  • I thought of praying for divine guidance in line with the great spiritual renaissance of our time. But I am all thumbs in that kind of deciduous conversation. I asked myself, did I, as God's creature under the stars, have the right to evade an event, a factual occurrence, to parry an experience or even a small peradventure.
    • "An Irrevocable Diameter" (1959)
  • But I do like this language -- wheat and chaff -- with its widening pool of foreign genes, and since I never have had any occasion to say “comestible,” it was pleasurable to think it.
    • "The Story Hearer"
  • Don’t you wish you could rise powerfully above your time and name? I’m sure we all try, but here we are, always slipping and falling down into them, speaking their narrow language, though the subject, which is how to save the world--and quickly--is immense.
    • "The Story Hearer"
  • [He] had invented a pinball machine. When we saw it, we said, George! This is not a pinball machine alone. This is the poem of a pinball machine, the essence made delicately concrete, and so forth.”
    • "This Is a Story about My Friend George, the Toy Inventor"
  • No, George said, you don’t understand. The pinball machine--any pinball machine you play in any penny arcade--is so remarkable, so fine, so shrewdly threaded. It is already beautiful in necessity and sufficiency of wire, connection, possibility.
    • "This Is a Story about My Friend George, the Toy Inventor"
  • Thank God for the head. The head is the only place you got to be young when the usual place gets used up.
    • "Zagrowsky Tells"
  • It’s hard to stand behind a people and culture in revolutionary transition when you are constantly worried about their irreplaceable and breakable artifacts.
    • "The Expensive Moment"
  • [Wild] with a dream of wildness.
    • "The Expensive Moment"
  • What is this crap, Mother, this life is short and terrible. What is this metaphysical shit, what is this disease you intelligentsia are always talking about.
    First we said: Intelligentsia! Us? Oh, the way words lie down under decades, then the Union of Restless Diggers out of sheer insomnia pulls them up: daggers for the young but to us they look like flowers of nostalgia that grew in our mother’s foreign garden. What did my mother say? Darling, you should have come to Town Hall last night, the whole intelligentsia was there. My uncle, strictly: the intelligentsia will never permit it.!
    • "Listening"
  • People do want to be young and beautiful. When they meet in the street, male or female, if they're getting older they look at each other's face a little ashamed. It's clear they want to say, Excuse me, I didn't mean to draw attention to mortality and gravity all at once. I didn't want to remind you, my dear friend, of our coming eviction, first from liveliness, then from life. To which, most of the time, the friend's eyes will courteously reply, My dear, it's nothing at all. I hardly noticed.
    • "Friends"
  • The organization of his ideas was all wrong; I was drawn to the memory of myself -- a mere stripling of a girl -- the day I learned that the shortest distance between any two points was a great circle.
    • "The Floating Truth"
  • Well, a wish, some wish, Ruth said. Well, I wished that this world wouldn’t end. This world, this world, Ruth said softly.
    • "Friends"
  • 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.
    • "A Conversation with My Father" (1972)
  • Literature has something to do with language. There’s probably a natural grammar at the tip of your tongue… If you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends, you’ll probably say something beautiful. Still, if you weren’t a tough, recalcitrant kid, that language may have been destroyed by the tongues of schoolteachers who were ashamed of interesting homes, inflection, and language and left them all for correct usage.
    • “Some Notes on Teaching” (1970)
  • When you find only yourself interesting, you’re boring. When I find only myself interesting, I’m a conceited bore. When I’m interested in you, I’m interesting.
    • “Some Notes on Teaching” (1970)
  • Every day in our neighborhood there were whole apartments, beds, bureaus, kitchen tables out on the street. We understood that this was because of capitalism, which didn't care that working people had no work and no money for rent.
    • "Injustice" (1995)

"Some Notes on Teaching" (1970)Edit

  • I need to stay as ignorant in the art of teaching as I want them to remain in the art of literature. The assignments I give are usually assignments I've given myself, problems that have defeated me, investigations I'm still pursuing.
  • Literature has something to do with language. There's probably a natural grammar at the tip of your tongue. You may not believe it, but if you say what's on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends, you'll probably say something beautiful. Still, if you weren't a tough, recalcitrant kid, that language may have been destroyed by the tongues of school-teachers who were ashamed of interesting homes, inflection, and language and left them all for correct usage.
  • A first assignment: to be repeated whenever necessary, by me or the class. Write a story, a first-person narrative in the voice of someone with whom you're in conflict. Someone who disturbs you, worries you, someone you don't understand. Use a situation you don't understand.
  • No personal journals, please, for about a year. Why? Boring to me. When you find only yourself interesting, you're boring. When I find only myself interesting, I'm a conceited bore. When I'm interested in you, I'm interesting.
  • Stay open and ignorant.
  • People like myself who must begin again and again in order to get anywhere at all.

Interview with Boston Review (1976)Edit

  • I think that any life that’s interesting, lived, has a lot of pulls in it.
  • things that concern me very much still . . . first of all, I still think a lot about Vietnam. I was there in ’69, in Hanoi, and also I traveled through all of the North from the DMZ, and so I saw an awful lot of it and I felt the people very much. I was at that time very involved in dealing with American POWs. I don’t think in my life I’ll ever get over those concerns and the injustice of the United States not simply acting out its responsibilities to Vietnam. Those things are not over for me. And the question of amnesty . . . they’re related. But I’m not as active. I act when I’m called upon. I guess I began to think of myself as more of a pacifist, which is sort of funny when you think that I was very strongly on the side of the really very fierce North Vietnamese and Vietcong. But still, I think disarmament is a tremendously important issue. So I’m really responding in many ways. I still work with the War Resisters’ League and with Resist, which operates out of Boston.
  • For me, somehow, the short story is very close to the poem in feeling and not so close in feeling to the novel, although it’s about the same people that a novel would be about.
  • you can only teach learners. You can’t teach any subject to anybody who isn’t there to want to know.
  • my favorite writer, the writer that I loved the most for a long time, was Isaak Babel. First of all, I was doing short stories then I began to read him—I hadn’t read him—and I felt, Oh my, it’s just what I want to do. He’s really writing about things he doesn’t exactly know and yet he’s trying to understand, he’s using writing to try to understand the world and that’s what I want to do. And that’s what I do. I write about things I don’t know all that well just to try and understand them. The act of writing is an investigative, learning act.
  • I think all art, all these stories that people write, happen when two amazing facts come together in some way, or two amazing events, or two amazing winds, or whatever it is, come and the surprise of this meeting is the story.
  • children’s writing is so often so beautiful, because it’s so close to their own true tongues. On the other hand, it’s very boring because they have no experience in life.
  • They (my parents) were both exiled. My father was sent to Siberia when he was about nineteen or twenty, and she was exiled to Germany. And then everybody under 21 was pardoned. And so they came back, and they married and came here immediately, as soon as they could.
  • That’s another thing that students do, they’ll write out into the air as though nobody came from anywhere, or as though we all came from that announcer’s voice that we used to hear on the radio which never came from anywhere. They try to write literature that way. And it can’t be done. Everybody comes from someplace, earns a living somehow. I have a lot of feeling about New York, but it’s not that it’s the only place in the world. It’s my hometown, it’s my place.
  • Even as a kid, it wasn’t to big stories of heroism that I listened but to the everyday people on my block more than anything else. Since I thought of my father and mother as somewhat heroic in their early years, what interested me tremendously was how this whole other world of people living every day, how they lived their lives. I think most people are heroic to a degree, they’re heroic in caring for the lives of the people around them and not dumping each other or dumping on each other.
  • I think the women’s movement is wonderful, a great thing. I hate to see some of the mean struggles within it, but I don’t see how it could exist without it. Everybody should try to be as honorable and truthful and fierce as they can be.
  • if you don’t think history, you’re not thinking. You’re just not thinking if you cannot see a generation back. And if you do not think about the circumstances in their lives, then you don’t know what you’re thinking about. There’s no truth in the present moment. Now simply doesn’t exist without then at all.

"Seneca Stories" (1983)Edit

In A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry

  • A great deal has been written about that hostility at Waterloo, as though a country that refuses to pass something as simple as the Equal Rights Amendment would not have pockets of vicious misogyny, as though a nation with tens of thousands of nuclear bombs, Army bases, weapons factories in the midst of unemployment would not be able to raise a furious patriarchal horde.
  • And we asked: wouldn't it have been wonderful if hundreds, thousands of Germans had sat down before gates of the Krupp gas-oven plants and troubled the contented hearts and minds of the good German people?
  • The woman on the other phone is young and in tears. She's saying, "Mom. Ma, please, it's my world they're gonna blow up." Then some silence. Then: "Ma, please, I have to do it. It's not terrible to get arrested. I'm all right, Ma, please listen, you got married and had us and everything and a house, but they still kept making nuclear bombs." More tears. "Listen, listen please, Ma." I wanted to take the phone from her and say, "Ma, don't worry, your kid's okay. She's great. Don't you see she's one of the young women who will save my granddaughter's life?"

Interview (1985)Edit

In The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women's Anthology edited by Irena Klepfisz and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz

  • When I talk about the religious attitude of my family, people like to say words about Jewish self-hatred. But there was none of that. There was no wish not to be Jewish. There was no desire to pretend we were something else. In fact, along with his opposition to religion, my father had biblical feeling and knowledge which he shared with me. And this was true to such a degree that I just grew up liking things Jewish, kind of pleased with myself for having had the sense to be born into this family instead of some other. When I left home and lived in the Midwest, it would be one of the first things I would tell people, really-at least in the beginning.
  • Well, it meant to be a socialist. Well, not really. But it meant to have social consciousness. It also meant that we were related to those generations of the Jewish Bible. We had common history. Our neighborhood was solidly Jewish. Next door there could be somebody who wasn't. That would be a very exotic person. The whole block didn't have more than two people who weren't Jewish. So my idea of the world was that it was totally Jewish. And the people to be worried about and pitied are the ones outside. So there is a sense that the stranger is the one to be remembered. The reason that it's repeated in the Bible so many times that we were strangers in Egypt is really to make us behave decently. This seemed to me very much a part of being Jewish. And it wasn't a matter of hospitality, which is as American as apple pie, so to speak. It wasn't hospitality; it was a normal sense of outrage when others were treated badly, and along with that the idea that injustice not be allowed to continue. Blacks, for example. When I was a little kid, I said the word "nigger," my big sister hauled off and socked me. When I tell her this, she's absolutely amazed. She really doesn't remember it. But those are the feelings that seemed to me very important, that seemed to me for some peculiar reason related to being Jewish.
    • What was your sense of what it meant to be Jewish when you were growing up?
  • my uncle, a young anarchist in his 20s, was deported in Palmer Raid days.
  • Well, since I think a lot about politics, it had an effect on me. But it didn't have a jolting or a changing effect. It wasn't so much a surprise as a new reason for sorrow and disgust. I was pleased at the services that year that this young fellow really spoke out very strongly. Sometimes I think that the Left has really made some terrible mistakes. I was talking about it the other day-the way the people in Nicaragua can separate the people of this US from the government. And that is partly a result of a decision by the Left. It's not just a strategy decision, it's true. It's a decision which the Left made in Vietnam, which was to divide the country. A very sensible, simple thing to do, to see us as opposed to the government. True too. It did not weaken the people of Nicaragua or Vietnam. So, I've never understood why my sisters and brothers on the Left haven't been able to do the same in relation to Israel. And if they'd done it a long time ago, I think things could have been different. If they had pointed out again and again: the people and the government, I mean, the difference at that time. A big majority of the American people were not yet against the war in Vietnam when the Vietnamese said, "We know you're not the government." There were maybe nine people on assorted street corners in '62, '63, '64 and the Vietnamese were already talking like that, right? So it's not as if you would have had to say the majority of the people in Israel are against this. Enough of them were in opposition. Why it wasn't done I-I know why it wasn't done. (Why?) Anti-Semitism. (Has that changed at all with the Left? Gotten worse? Or do you think it's the same?) No, I think in some ways it's better. In the women's movement press, too. You were really both very useful and really strong and influential. And I think a lot of women began to think seriously about anti-Semitism. Just because women started to stand up, others suddenly realized they had legs.
    • A lot of people we've talked to said that Israel's invasion of Lebanon in '82 was a real jolt. People who for years hadn't thought about their Jewishness were sort of forced to start thinking about it in relationship to Israel. Did that have an effect on you?
  • You know in my lifetime, Jews have been very close to Blacks, really have had very close relations, and I just happen to be reading this book When and Where I Enter (by Paula Giddings).
  • In some groups I've worked with a couple of young women would come in and say: "Start talking about racism. We're all racist because we're not talking constantly about racism." It probably never entered their minds that many of us had been talking about it for years, acting on it for years, and that it was not a new subject for many of us at all, had always been one of deep concern. But it was new to them.
  • If you I live long enough you really become patient. People improve. If they're already wonderful, they become slowly more wonderful.
  • You can't talk about anything without bringing in the world. It's out there.
  • That word identity has been hard for many women who live secular lives and maybe harder for religious women and also feminists. But the women's movement has made a big difference. I don't know who it hasn't helped in this world. It's given a lot of Jewish women courage to stay Jewish and fight.

"Of Poetry and Women and the World (1986)Edit

In A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry

  • I have to begin by saying that as far as I know, and even listening to all the people talking earlier, I have to say that war is man-made. It's made by men. It's their thing, it's their world, and they're terribly injured in it. They suffer terribly in it, but it's made by men. How do they come to live this way?
  • When I came to think as a writer, it was because I had begun to live among women.
  • that, I think, is really where lots of literature comes from. It really comes, not from knowing so much, but from not knowing. It comes from what you're curious about. It comes from what obsesses you. It comes from what you want to know.
  • writers who are young or maybe just young in writing. To tell them that no matter what you feel about what you're doing, if that is really what you're looking for, if that is really what you're trying to understand, if that is really what you're stupid about, if that's what you're dumb about and you're trying to understand it, stay with it, no matter what, and you'll at least live your own truth or be hung for it.
  • one of the things that art is about, for me, is justice. Now, that isn't a matter of opinion, really. That isn't to say, "I'm going to show these people right or wrong" or whatever. But what art is about-and this is what justice is about, although you'll have your own interpretations-is the illumination of what isn't known, the lighting up of what is under a rock, of what has been hidden. And I think people feel like that who are beginning to write.
  • We were accused of having been doomstruck the other day. And in a way we should be, why shouldn't we be? Things are rotten. I'm sixty-one and three-quarters years old and I've seen terrible times during the Depression, and I do think the life of the people was worse during the McCarthy period. I just want to throw that in extra. That is to say the everyday life, the fearful life, of Americans was harder in that time than this. But the objective facts of world events right now are worse than at any other time. And we all know that, we can't deny it, and it's also true that it's very hard to look in the faces of our children, and terrifying to look into the faces of our grandchildren. And I cannot look at my granddaughter's face, really, without shading my eyes a little bit and saying, "Well, listen, Grandma's not going to let that happen." But we have to face it, and they have to face it, just as we had to face what was much less frightening.
  • the possibility is that what we need right now is to imagine the real. That is where our leaders are falling down and where we ourselves have to imagine the lives of other people. So men-who get very pissed at me sometimes, even though I really like some of them a lot-men have got to imagine the lives of women, of all kinds of women. Of their daughters, of their own daughters, and of the lives that their daughters lead. White people have to imagine the reality, not the invention but the reality, of the lives of people of color. Imagine it, imagine that reality, and understand it. We have to imagine what is happening in Central America today, in Lebanon and South Africa. We have to really think about it and imagine it and call it to mind, not simply refer to it all the time. What happens is that when you just keep referring to things, you lose them entirely. But what if you think in terms of the life of the people, you really have to keep imagining. You have to think of the reality of what is happening down there, and you have to imagine it.
  • that's one of the things that's most encouraging to me: to think that some of these young guys have been listening, and imagining the lives of their daughters in a new way, and thinking about it, and wanting something different for them. That is what some of imagining is about.

"Midrash on happiness" (1990)Edit

In A Grace Paley Reader (2017)

  • For happiness, she also required work to do in this world and bread on the table.
  • By in love she meant the acuteness of the heart at the sudden sight of a particular person or the way over a couple of years of interested friendship one is suddenly stunned by the lungs' longing for more and more breath in the presence of that friend
  • When I read the papers and hear all this boom boom bellicosity, the guys out-daring each other, I see we have to change it all the world-without killing it absolutely-without killing it, that'll be the trick the kids'll have to figure out. Until that begins, I don't understand happiness-what you mean by it.
  • everywhere vast public suffering rose in reeling waves from the round earth's nation-states-hung in the satellite-watched air and settled in no time at all into TV sets and newsrooms. It was all there. Look up and the news of halfway round the planet is falling on us all.
  • sometimes walking with a friend I forget the world.

Interview with The Paris Review (1992)Edit

  • we had our normal family life—struggles and hard times. That takes up a lot of time, hard times. Uses up whole days.
  • it was kind of exhausting running after two babies. Still, looking back I see the pleasure of it. That’s when I began to know women very well—as co-workers, really...If I hadn’t spent that time in the playground, I wouldn’t have written a lot of those stories.
  • Writers often write about what they want to read or haven’t seen written.
  • there’s always that first storytelling impulse: I want to tell you something . . .
  • A lot of them (my stories) begin with a sentence—they all begin with language...Very often one sentence is absolutely resonant...The sound of the story comes first.
  • I read it (my story) aloud a lot, and that helps me. It’s not so useful for a writer of novels, but for me reading aloud as I work helps me know if it’s right.
  • what’s a writer for? The whole point is to put yourself into other lives, other heads—writers have always done that. If you screw up, so someone will tell you, that’s all. I think men can write about women and women can write about men. The whole point is to know the facts. Men have so often written about women without knowing the reality of their lives, and worse, without being interested in that daily reality.
  • I liked Norman Rush’s last book, Mating. The main character is a very smart woman, very intellectual, very interesting, and very unlike many of the women many women write about.
    • Are there any men you think write particularly well about women?
  • I really wrote in his (W.H. Auden's) style. I was crazy about him. I loved his poems so much that I was using this British language all the time—I was saying trousers and subaltern and things like that. You understand I was a Bronx kid. We went through a few poems, and he kept asking me, do you really talk like that? And I kept saying, Oh yeah, well, sometimes. That was the great thing I learned from Auden: that you’d better talk your own language. Then I asked him what young writers now ask me—and I always tell them this story—I said to Auden, Well, do you think I should keep writing? He laughed and then became very solemn. If you’re a writer, he said, you’ll keep writing no matter what. That’s not a question a writer should ask. Something like that, not exactly, but close.
  • I read poetry all the time. Probably the poets everybody read then. Very catholic taste. I even loved Eliot then whom I later grew not to love. I knew lots of poems by memory and walked around mumbling them. Yeats, Rilke, Keats, Coleridge. I liked Milton a lot, for some reason. And then there were the Oscar Williams anthologies of 1942 and 1943 with those pictures of the beautiful young poets.
  • We read a lot of JoyceDubliners was always very important to me—and Proust. Joyce’s stories were the only short stories I really liked. We used to read Ulysses aloud when I was eighteen years old. I think that’s where I got my habit of reading aloud. Gertrude Stein’s Three Stories impressed me. The use of the “other voice.” Then there were lots of other novels at home that my parents were reading—like The Forty Days of Musa Dagh—we worried, we felt for the Armenians. Later I read Chekhov, who meant a lot to me. Then Babel and Turgenev—all the Russians—and Flaubert.
  • Russian is very dear to me because it’s a family language, but I am Jewish-Russian, which is a little different from Russian-Russian. My family ran away in 1905 from the Russian-Russians.
  • I’ve been surrounded by music for most of my life. Always classical. But I think the most powerful sounds are those voices, those childhood voices. The tune of those voices. Other languages, Russian and Yiddish, coming up smack against the English. I think you hear that a lot in American literature.
  • Two things happen when you get older. You have more experience, so you either seem wiser, or you get totally foolish. There are only those two options.
  • I will say I knew I wanted to write about women and children, but I put it off for a couple of years because I thought, People will think this is trivial, nothing. Then I thought, It’s what I have to write. It’s what I want to read. And I don’t see it out there. Meanwhile, the women’s movement had begun to gather force. It needed to become the second wave. It turned out that we were some of the drops in the wave. Tillie Olsen was more like a cupful.
  • There’s hardly a woman writer who doesn’t receive some kind of support from the women’s movement. We’re very lucky to be living and writing now.
  • the outside world will trivialize you for almost anything if it wants to. You may as well be who you are.
  • In 1959 it was absolutely insane for Ken McCormick to say, yes, he was going to publish a book of short stories. Now everybody in the writing world is reading and writing short stories.
  • a lot more women are writing. A lot of people who wouldn’t have written are writing. When a couple of black women speak, the throats of many are opened. Somehow or other they give courage and sound to their sisters.
  • You can’t write without a lot of pressure. Sometimes the pressure comes from anger, which then changes into a pressure to write.
  • The pressure from anger is an energy that can be violent or useful or useless. Also the pressure doesn’t have to be anger. It could be love. One could be overcome with feelings of lifetime love or justice.
  • I’m not as close to violence as African American mothers who are writers, such as Toni Morrison or June Jordan. Having black sons who are vulnerable to police, to directed race hatred, they must be anxious all the time.
  • I hate the American expectation of violence. I’m not going to play into any of that. When I must write about violence, I will, but I’ll do it straight, not add and add because the level is higher every year.
  • art comes from constant mental harassment.
  • One of the first things I tell my classes is, If you want to write, keep a low overhead. If you want to live expansively, you’re going to be in trouble because then you have to start thinking very hard about whom you’re writing to, who your audience is, who the editor thinks your audience is, who he wants your audience to be.
  • It’s a different life (being a parent). Another creature is really dependent on you. I think it’s good for a writer, though. I know some people say women writers should not have children. Of course, it was worse for them back then. Years ago just to do the kids’ wash could take the whole day, so if you were poor it was impossible to write. If you were rich, you could hire a maid; it was possible if you were George Sand. But even now we need help. My kids were in day care from the time they were three years old.
  • I always say that racism is like pneumonia and anti-Semitism is like the common cold—everybody has it.
  • The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.

Conversations with Grace Paley (1997)Edit

  • There's this book by Joan Miró, the artist, called I Work Like a Gardener. It's a very small book, it's very beautiful, and he says, "I work like a gardener. I'm never so happy as when I'm rich in Canvases." He says, "Then I get up in the morning and I prune one. I water another..." I had been working very much like that. It's such a nice corroboration from another art, that I'm grateful to it, and it's become a way that, with my bad habits and my natural disinclinations, I can work. (1980 interview)
  • People's imagination has been changed a lot by television. (1980 interview)
  • I think a lot of what influences a writer is what you hear in the street, the language you hear, the way people talk, the way, the rhythms, the song, the language of your childhood. (1980 interview)
  • I begin every class, for instance, with the reading of poems, of something somebody thinks is beautiful. Like sort of a ritual, like saying grace, or thank you God, or something. Somebody comes in and picks up a poem and reads a poem by George Herbert or reads a poem by almost anybody. Somebody read two pages of Faulkner yesterday. I want them to read something they love. So at least two poems are read at the beginning of class-or fiction. (1986 interview)
  • the world may not last. Just the other day Ronald Reagan said that the arms race is necessary. He has to be insane. INSANE! And all the people listening. They have to be insane too.
  • I write all the time, in a way. I'm not a very disciplined person. I write. I wrote yesterday, a little. Writing is a habit, among other things, and if you're a writer you'd better get into the habit. A lot of people don't realize that. When I'm writing a story then I'm really writing all the time, wholly involved in it. When I'm not writing a story, I'm still thinking....Susan Sontag once said that she can't wait to get to a typewriter so she'll know what she thinks! And that's true for most writers, that you really have gotten this habit of thinking on paper. Until you do that all you have is a lot of junk in your head, a lot of stuff swirling around, and the paper is the place where you really begin to think. (1979 interview)
    • "Do you write when you have to? Or when do you write?"

Interview with War Resisters League (2000)Edit

  • People say the Vietnamese won the war. They did not win the war, the U.S. won the war, just by leaving and starving them to death. You don’t say somebody won the war in a medieval town which is under constant siege. Until the U.S. is certain that the Vietnamese lost the war, until they’re absolutely certain that their condition is totally hopeless, we’re not gonna help them.
  • I’d never known pacifists before. My parents were very peaceful people and socialists, and they were always against all wars, but pacifism was not a Russian socialist idea. Somebody invited [peace and civil rights activist and WRL staffer] Bayard Rustin to talk, and Mary Gandall and I listened to him with our mouths open. We were both so impressed—it was like the good news, as they say about Jesus. We were getting very good news about how to think about the world.
  • We also organized Vietnamese Life. Vietnamese Life was like a teach-in through artists and writers. Everybody did something that would teach about Vietnamese life. Wally Zuckerman, who used to make harpsichords in the Village, did a Vietnamese forest symphony. Writers like Hortense Calisher read Vietnamese stories. [Avant-garde playwright] Maria Irena Fornes did The Vietnamese Wedding, which later became a play.
  • probably the education in nonviolent direct action couldn’t have been learned without a war. It had to take a war for people to learn that things could be defied and resisted. I think that was a very important legacy of the peace movement.

Interview with Poets & Writers (2008)Edit

  • I think the world is worse, but the people are better. I think this has to do with the revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s and the work we all did in that period. The important thing to remember about the Iraq war is that the whole world protested against it. For the first time in history, the whole world, not just me and my husband Bob, but the whole world came together to try to stop a war before it started. That had never happened before. I have a book with pictures of those protests from all over the world, from Africa, from Asia, from all over Europe. In every country people said, “No, no, don’t do it, don’t do it.” Whatever happens now, this fact is in the world. I think with those protests, we made maybe a couple of inches of progress. Some light flared there for a minute and that minute may be carried on. That’s why I say the world right now is a little worse, mostly because of what our country is doing, but the people are better because almost everywhere in the world there are people who are really thinking that they have some responsibility to make a peaceful world and to live decently. We’ll see what the next generation can do.
  • everybody should be involved, not just the artists. Carpenters, teachers, everybody.
  • I’m an American. I don’t feel national pride or anything like that, but on the other hand I’m very interested in this country. I’m very interested in the history of it, and I feel that it does have some valuable ideas that really have transformed many people. Certainly this is true when I think of my own parents coming here and all the other immigrants who have come here. They came for a reason, and they were satisfied, one way or the other.
  • these old time immigrants are not standing up enough for the newer immigrants—the Latino people who have been coming across the Mexican border and others.
  • I still remember my mother reading the newspaper at the table when I was a kid. Apparently the Nazi party has just gotten itself together, and Hitler is in power. It must be around 1939, maybe a little earlier. My mother says to my father, “Look, Zenia, it’s beginning again.” Those words— “it’s beginning again”—have reverberated in my ears all my life. It’s beginning again. The fear you hear in those words. As a person who has never really suffered any prejudice, I remember those words.
  • I read a lot. In poetry, I liked W. H. Auden more than anyone. I loved British writers and the novels I grew up with, Twain, Dickens, and so on. I was not influenced say by Walt Whitman or anyone like that. His freedom was not my freedom, and so it didn’t affect me. But Saul Bellow had begun to write already. He freed the Jewish voice in some ways that I didn’t even recognize, but his work was all about men. Still, for Jews who are crazy about the English language, he was the one.
  • Tillie Olsen and I didn’t know it, but we were part of a movement.
  • Have a low overhead. Don’t live with anybody who doesn’t support your work. Very important. And read a lot. Don’t be afraid to read or of being influenced by what you read. You’re more influenced by the voice of childhood than you are by some poet you’re reading. The last piece of advice is to keep a paper and pencil in your pocket at all times, especially if you’re a poet. But even if you’re a prose writer, you have to write things down when they come to you, or you lose them, and they’re gone forever. Of course, most of them are stupid, so it doesn’t matter. But in case they’re the thing that solves the problem for the story or the poem or whatever, you’d better keep a pencil and a paper in your pocket.
    • "What advice do you give to younger writers?"
  • I think that’s what literature is about; it’s the struggle for truth. It’s the struggle for what you don’t understand
  • If you look out that window, it’s so amazing, and the countryside is being murdered. People don’t understand what is being done to their countryside. In some parts of the world, they seem to understand it better than here. Here we don’t seem to get it that the fields are being wrecked by poisons and the air is close to the end of breathable. There is a great effort in America to stay happy and not worry and not understand and not do anything about it.
  • I want people to look at the world and see what’s happening to it and take some action. This planet is so lovable. It is so various and so lovable, including all sorts of parts of the world that I’ve never seen, and I’ve seen more than most people. Just in what your eyes see, and how people live on the earth, it’s amazing, but it’s going to end if we don’t get our leaders to pay attention.
  • Human beings come from several million years of development, which is quite wonderful. I have a lot of regard for what human beings have become. It took us a million years to learn how to speak to each other, and we did it. It took us another million years to work with each other, and we did it. I think the human race is remarkable…Until we live in a world where we stop abusing each other and the other creatures, we will not have reached our perfection.

Quotes about Grace PaleyEdit

  • Her peers have praised her publicly. Philip Roth called her a "genuine writer of prose," and Herbert Gold, "an exciting writer." Susan Sontag, perhaps selling short Paley's deliberate artistry, called her "a rare kind of writer"-a "natural." Donald Barthelme said simply she was "wonderful."
  • On the literary front, Grace Paley is the nation’s — one of the most acclaimed writers in the nation.
  • I read a lot of poetry. I keep up, as much as possible, with modern American poetry and I think that I'm very influenced by its rhythms. I like Walt Whitman, and I read all of Yeats a couple of months ago... I've read Galway Kinnell and Carolyn Kizer and Bob Hass, and some of the people who are sort of like poets but are prose writers like Grace Paley and Cynthia Ozick.
  • if you’re going to be involved with the Left, you’ve got to start thinking about Israel. Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and I became very committed to supporting the Women in Black in ‘87. I formed a group here, the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation (JWCEO) with Clare Kinberg and Grace Paley. We wanted to be identified as Jews protesting.
  • Grace, guide us! What is politics to you?/You are such a brave activist!/How do we live, what do we do?/Politics is simply the way human beings treat/one another on the earth.
  • Poet Robert Pinsky knew Paley for more than 20 years, and he loved her poetry and short fiction. "They're completely lucid," he said. "They take the materials of a life, and make those materials immensely beautiful — that's art."
  • As Philip Roth has said, Paley's stories display "an understanding of loneliness, lust, selfishness, and fatigue that is splendidly comic and unladylike." In the words of her neighbor and colleague in fiction, Donald Barthelme, she is a "wonderful writer and troublemaker"...Paley's second-floor living room is vintage Village. Bookshelves crammed with Babel and Chekhov and Marx, records piled into a Hellman's mayonnaise box, a sad rag rug, artifacts of politics, woolly pillows strewn on the floor, three empty light sockets in the ceiling. The lived-in look.
  • What I love most in Grace Paley's poetry is her unquenchable sense that the artist's life is not somewhere at the margins of community, that a dialogue is necessary between the poet and her people. The North American enterprise has injured this dialogue. Paley's exuberant, heartbreaking, committed poems call it back to health.

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