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We Need Grace Paley’s Wisdom on Motherhood, Art, and Activism

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Grace Paley’s fiction is hugely influential–it echoes in contemporary short stories everywhere you read them.

But this particular summer, in which the intersection of parenthood and political activism is at the forefront of many of our minds, her life is as much as an example to us as her art. While researching Paley for Kveller’s video about her life, I found some really amazing quotes about how she managed to be a mom, a writer and an activist, and I thought I’d share them with you.

Scroll past the video to read her full words on how motherhood affected her art and activism.


On feminism and her writing:

You see, nothing happens without political movement. Now it just so happens that when I started writing prose, the women’s movement was coming together. I didn’t know this. What happens is that you’re part of something without knowing it. The black power movement had a literature that lived with it, that supported it. So the women’s movement began to develop. Tillie Olson and I didn’t know it, but we were part of a movement. I became more and more interested in the lives of women, and I couldn’t write about this in poetry. I didn’t know how to write about this material in poetry. I can now, but I couldn’t do it then. So I had these stories, and I began to write them, she said in an interview with Poets & Writers.

On “having it all”:

When the Boston Review asked: ” You are a writer, teacher, political activist, wife and mother. How do you manage so much?” her answer was funny and perfect.

“I remember somebody once asking that and I gave my usual wise-guy remark: pure neglect. You know, something like that. But really, I think that any life that’s interesting, lived, has a lot of pulls in it. It seems to me natural that I’d be pulled in those ways. When you’ve got children, you don’t want to just hand them over to somebody. It’s interesting how children grow and you deprive yourself if you give too much of it away. I don’t mean that you don’t want to be free, you do, you want all that. But that’s again a pull, you’re pulled, and it’s only one life for Christ’s sake. And you are privileged somehow to do as much as you can. I wouldn’t give any of it up… I think a good hard greed is the way to approach life. “

On parenthood and activism:

“First of all, you fool yourself if you think that you’re so goddamn important, you know? You’re just not that important. You’re important, but the world is bringing them up and insofar as the world is bringing them up—so that if you have a boy, he’s liable to be sent off and murdered in Africa or someplace like that—you better pay attention to the world too. It’s all related.”

On how being a mom influenced her work:

When the Paris Review staff asked her “What were you doing before you became a published writer? she said: “I had my kids when I was about twenty-six, twenty-seven. I took them to the park in the afternoons. Thank God I was lazy enough to spend all that time in Washington Square Park. I say lazy but of course it was kind of exhausting running after two babies. Still, looking back I see the pleasure of it. That’s when I began to know women very well—as co-workers, really. I had a part-time job as a typist up at Columbia. In fact, when I began to write stories, I typed some up there, and some in the PTA office of P.S. 41 on Eleventh Street. If I hadn’t spent that time in the playground, I wouldn’t have written a lot of those stories. That’s pretty much how I lived. And then we had our normal family life—struggles and hard times. That takes up a lot of time, hard times. Uses up whole days.”

If you’re intrigued, buy the recently-released Grace Paley reader, which selects from her fiction, poetry and essays and gives you a full measure of her contribution.

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