When I was in graduate school at Vermont College, I was madly fortunate to be sitting on a couch in the lounge of Noble Hall, directly facing the amazing Grace Paley, who, for this informal talk, had chosen a small wooden chair. I don’t remember whether it was winter or summer, whether it was 1988 or 1989. I don’t remember who was sitting beside me, but I do remember thinking it strange that, even in our small MFA program, so few students–fewer than twenty–had come for the talk.
Of all the life-and-art altering things I read and heard during my time as a graduate student, no single phrase has resonated with me so deeply and so often as Grace Paley’s reply when another student asked her how she approached a story or a poem after getting down on paper the passionate mess of an early draft. Grace Paley said, “I try to take out the lies. That’s it. I take out the lies.”
This transcript of a talk given by Grace Paley around 1983 or 1984–before I knew her name–turned up in my email this afternoon in a newsletter, Work in Progress. Most writers I know believe to some degree in serendipity, but, for me, the convergences this afternoon feel far beyond accident, however happy. As I inch closer and closer to finishing my novel, my work in progress–which happens, in its way, to be about men making war–I find the need to go back, back, back through what I’ve already written and revised many times, hunting down and doing my best to take out the lies. I’m trying my best to meet what Paley tells me is my responsibility as a writer, and, especially, as a woman writer: “to keep an eye on this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be listened to this time.”