Grace Paley & Anne Lamott

Grace Paley & Anne Lamott

Past Event: Monday, November 17, 1997

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Literary Arts

Grace Paley grew up in the Bronx, surrounded by boisterous street life and the idioms of Russian and Yiddish. Her parents, Russian Jewish immigrants, were both committed socialists. Since childhood, Paley had written poetry, characterized by its humor, irony, use of dialogue, and look of spontaneity. In her mid-30s, however, she began to feel stirred by something new-the urge to tell stories. An editor at Doubleday read three of Paley’s earliest short stories and encouraged her to continue writing. That collection became the first of three volumes: Little Disturbances of ManEnormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later the Same Day. These were gathered in 1994’s The Collected Stories and nominated for a National Book Award.

Deeply dedicated to human rights and antimilitarist issues, Paley is also known for her political activism. A self-described “combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist,” Paley fills her stories with conversational voices, many of them ethnic, echoing the sounds of her youth and the personal stories of women and children. Her writing details ordinary people, congregating on porch steps and in kitchens—the flashes of everyday life. Her stories begin with language, in the resonance of an isolated sentence.

Grace Paley has taught writing at various universities, including City College, Columbia University, and Sarah Lawrence. She divides her time between New York and Vermont.

Anne Lamott is a writer of extraordinary candor and irreverent wit, making her way through several forbidden doors in her novels. She has tackled alcoholism, child molestation, cheating, and jealousy, among other taboo subjects. Lamott was raised in Marin County, California, by her father (a writer and Lamott’s creative mentor) and her mother (a lawyer). She spent two years at Goucher College in Maryland on a tennis scholarship before dropping out to become a writer. Working variously as a typist, house cleaner, and tennis teacher, Lamott searched for something to write about. Her father’s diagnosis with brain cancer, when Lamott was 23, became the basis for her first novel in 1980, Hard Laughter.

Time and again, Lamott has found inspiration for her novels in her own life experience. She acknowledges drawing on her struggle with alcoholism (she quit drinking in 1986) in her second novel, Rosie, and on the stomach-wrenching tensions she felt as a child surrounding her parents’ unhappy marriage in her fourth book, All New People. The publication of her two nonfiction bestsellers, Operating Instructions and Bird by Bird, secured Lamott’s place as an honest, confessional writer. The former details her first year of single motherhood; the latter is a collection of her advice on writing.

Excerpt  from “An Irrevocable Diameter” from The Collected Stories (1994), by Grace Paley
These castaways on life’s sodden beach were under the impression that I was the first. I was not. I am not an inventive or creative person, I take a cue from the universe, I have never been the first anywhere. Actually, in this case, I was no more than fifth or sixth. I don’t say this to be disparaging of Cindy. A person has to start somewhere. Why was Mr. Graham so baffled by truth? Gourmets everywhere begin with voracious appetites before they can come to the finesse of taste. I had seen it happen before; in five or six years, a beautiful and particular woman, she might marry some contributing citizen and resign her light habits to him. None of my adversaries was more than ten years my senior, but their memories were short (as mine would be if I weren’t sure at all times to keep in touch with youth).

Excerpt from Crooked Little Heart (1997), by Anne Lamott
If marriage was a comforting garment you could wrap around you, a fight could rip it loose and leave you standing bare and alone in a high wind, the high wind of the messes of your marriage, all that was frayed and grubby. Too many harsh words spoken, and too much unsaid, too many compromises snatched at the garment, leaving it grubby and frayed. It was so hard, though, after a fight, because one hardly had the strength or desire even to bend down and pick up the garment at your feet. But then when you did, it would feel warm and heavy and have the smell of your beloved, which is so incredible and familiar and also a little rank, with the mammalian essence of life and the sweat of battle.

Selected Work

Grace Paley
Just as I Thought (1998)The Collected Stories (1994)Begin Again: New and Collected Poems (1992)Long Walks and Intimate Talks (1991)Leaning Forward: Poems (1985)Later the Same Day (1985)The Little Disturbances of Man (1985)Enormous Changes at the Last Minute: Stories (1974)

Anne Lamott
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)
Just as I Thought (1998)Crooked Little Heart (1997)Bird by Bird (1994)The Collected Stories (1994)Operating Instructions (1993)Begin Again: New and Collected Poems (1992)Long Walks and Intimate Talks (1991)All New People (1989)Joe Jones (1985)Later the Same Day (1985)
Leaning Forward: Poems (1985)The Little Disturbances of Man (1985)Rosie (1983)Hard Laughter (1979)
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute: Stories (1974)

Links
Salon.com interview with Paley
Paley as a New York Times featured author
Interview with Lamott
Lamott’s column on Salon.com