What a Writer Must Do

If we were in the author Grace Paley’s writing class, there’d be a few things she would want to do.

She would tell us, as she told The Paris Review, to keep a low overhead. Don’t live with someone who doesn’t respect your work. “Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.”

She would show us one of her first drafts. She would show it to us because she wanted us to see how many unnecessary adjectives there were. How messy and unclean it was. She would show it to us because she wanted us to see how bad her first drafts were, too.

She would tell us with our first drafts to “begin where you know something. And then you go out to where you don’t know.”

If we told her, We really don’t know much. She would tell us, “You really know a lot.” More than you think. She would tell us this in her nice, thick Bronx accent from behind nice, thick glasses. She might be chewing gum, too.

You have to be interested in life, she believed. Not necessarily the big heroes and heroics; they will get their biographies and their close-ups. She was interested in how people lived everyday life. How they survived and overcame and fought back. She listened to voices on her street. Watched people out her window.

And so Ms. Paley would tell us, “When I find only myself interesting, I’m a conceited bore.” That nice, thick Bronx accent would be warm, matter-of-fact. “When I’m interested in you, I’m interesting.”

Because for Ms. Paley, one of the main things she wanted to do in her class had nothing to do with her. What she really wanted was to get us – you and me – to listen to each other.

“Paying attention to one another’s work,” she would tell us, as she told The Boston Review, “this is part of paying attention to the world, which is what I think a writer must do.”

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