MONTPELIER, VERMONT: “The job of a fiction writer is to illuminate what is written.” That pearl of wisdom from the late Grace Paley was shared with us here at the Vermont College of Fine Arts by VCFA instructor Richard McCann.
At his interactive lecture, a few dozen of us students broke down a two-page short story by the late Ms. Paley titled “Mother.” (You can read it online here.) We could easily have spent another four hours analyzing this very short work, and that was part of McCann’s point; that the writer has an obligation to “illuminate what is written”by maximizing word choice.
The obit in The New York Times for Grace Paley tells us she was a “celebrated writer and social activist whose short stories explored in precise, pungent and tragicomic style the struggles of ordinary women muddling through everyday lives.” To McCann she was even more, a personal inspiration he was fortunate enough to know through VCFA, and whose presentation at a writer’s conference in the mid-1980s before he knew her helped inspired him, a poet, to pursue prose. (McCann is now a polymath, a master of poetry, fiction, and memoir; I found particularly moving his recent memoir Mother of Sorrows.)
We don’t need a lot of words to tell a lot of story. In a mere 420 words Paley covers three first-person incidents in her past, then back story, then another scene, and throughout builds on the metaphor of a doorway to convey a complex set of emotions surrounding the death of the narrator’s mother. It would take me more than 420 words in this blog post to explain this masterful construction.
I can’t capture the magic that occurred in the room as McCann guided us–well, allowed us to find our way–through the many layers of metaphor and imagery Paley evoked in this short piece. But perhaps I can convey it by passing on a line that McCann heard Paley say at that fateful conference a quarter-century ago. Paley announced to the crowd that she had been invited there to speak on the art of revision. After some quiet, Paley said: “Look at the first word. Ask, ‘Is that true?’ Then go to the next word and do the same thing.”
UPDATE: Thank you to filmmaker Sonya Friedman for directing my attention to a documentary on Grace Paley she produced and co-directed. You can learn more here.
ABOUT THIS SERIES: As promised, I am posting occasional “nuggets” of wisdom I am acquiring here at my second residency in the MFA for Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. My goal is to have us learn together!