Grace Paley, writer, poet, social activist, died last Wednesday at 84. Robin Morgan has written a beautiful and inspiring tribute to her:
I loved her. In this, I was part of another mass movement.
She was one of the great story-tellers. But what the literary tributes won’t necessarily mention is that Grace knew the personal was political before feminism did, and was holistic before new agers were born: fierce atheist, fierce Jew, fierce radical traditionalist feminist wife mother grandmother artist. If anybody had a problem with the seamlessness of that cloth or tried to inflict contradictions on it, how silly: a shrug and loud crack of the ever-present chewing gum at them.
What the political eulogies won’t necessarily mention is how generous she was to younger writers—Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin (both also gone, alas), numerous others; I can personally testify to that. She was also unfailingly supportive of small literary ventures (like the recent founding of an online literary journal by older women, Persimmontree), and small presses: The Feminist Press, Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, and many more, including her own venture with Bob Nichols, Glad Day Books (named for a William Blake etching).
What the obituaries cannot mention is how hilarious an experience it was to edit her; I can testify to that, too. When I was editor of Ms. in the early 1990s, I published Grace as often as possible. I never touched her deceptively simple poems or superbly honed fiction (though she always asked me to “Please fix anything stupid, Honey”–an opportunity that never presented itself). She would apologize for her “messy” copy, typescript (no computer, no print-out), all the x-outs and scribbled write-ins evident—Sorry, Toots, rushing to a demonstration, no time to retype. How could she realize my delight in tracking those breadcrumbs of her revisions as clues to the brilliant exercise of her craft?
Editing her nonfiction is where the hilarity came in.
First, she’d be late on deadline. I don’t mean late the way all us writers are late: The cats peed on my draft My computer crashed My grandfather died (again). I mean really late. So I’d nag. She’d apologize: I feel so guilty Honey, my grandkids were visiting, tomorrow, I swear. A few days later, I’d nag. She’d apologize: Oh I’m a bad person no don’t you apologize for nagging it’s a woman’s art-form besides I come from a nagging people Jews survive by nagging the world.
But eventually, Grace would appear, essay not in hand but in shopping bag. Fragments would emerge, to be spread across desk or table or even the floor: half-page typed bits; a post-it or twelve; a paper napkin with a few ink-blurred lines; the back of a grocery list sporting two paragraphs in pencil. She would grin and crack her gum. There! she would beam, Arrange ‘em how you like. I would reply Grace, as calmly as I could, Grace. You’re a literary lion, also a pal, I wouldn’t dare “arrange” your work. Dare schmare, she’d shrug—the least pretentious anti-diva I ever met—You’ll see, Toots, maybe they’ll fall into place, I trust you, do whacha want. Then she’d ask after my son, hug me, scurry off. And of course, I learned that if you studied the highly sophisticated shards of this Linear B closely enough, they inevitably “fell into place.”