Grace Paley was the keynote speaker of the first writing conference I ever attended: the 2007 Juniper Summer Writing Institute. In fact, her involvement with the conference was what inspired me to apply. Grace Paley was a queen of voice writing, a literary gem, a committed social activist, a personal hero.
I’d heard Paley read a few times before when she visited Virginia Commonwealth University, and I loved the way her actual voice brought the grit and wit of her literary voice to vivid life. The night she read at Juniper, UMass faculty, conference participants and faculty, and Amherst residents jammed the auditorium.
Always small, Paley was especially frail this night. Of course no one knew it at the time, but we were witnessing one of the last public readings of her storied career because she passed away only a month later. Once she began reading, though, her rich, fabulous voice subsumed all her smallness and frailness. She became her story.
Strong voice in literature does this: immerses us wholly in another character, blurs the lines between them and us. No wonder literature expands our empathy; it demands our complicity in someone else’s humanity, complete with their flaws and blemishes, and leaves us elevated and enlightened from the effort.
So it was that kind of reading.
My writing and reading life before that night had been a patchwork. In hindsight, it feels like every discovery of inspiring writers and every learned discipline of this work came later than it should have. I stumbled a lot trying to find my way. By the time I attended Juniper, I had finished a novel – not just writing it, but rewriting the hell out of it, too – and I hoped a conference might help me find an advocate who might, in turn, help ensure that this new manuscript would get read by a verifiable Chooser of Manuscripts.
That was the goal that brought me to the conference, but what I gained from the experience was better than that. The festival feeling of a writing conference, of finally being surrounded with people who shared my passion for reading and writing so much that they dedicated their vacation time to it, traveled away from home for it, paid money for it, threw themselves into the work of it, energized me, thrilled me even. I’d wondered and wandered my way into the right place. That’s how I was feeling when Grace Paley opened the floor to questions.
I had discovered many favorite books by reading forewords in best-loved classic novels and learning who had inspired those writers and from recommendations from writer friends whose tastes resonated with mine. Reading for writers is like cross-training for athletes. We read broadly for scope, the way athletes exercise to stay fit overall, and selectively for specific elements of craft and tone that most relate to our work, the way athletes zero in on muscle groups that relate to their chosen sports. So our reading regimens are crucial to our training as writers.
While there’s something to learn from almost everything I read, the books that speak to me the loudest are those that harken to the kind of writing I aspire toward myself. Grace Paley’s work struck me smack in my aspirations. So I wanted to know who she was reading. Surely the literature that spoke to the Queen of Voice would speak to me, too, might even introduce to me voices that moved me as insistently, definitively, funnily, crankily, snarkily, heart-singingly as her own did.
Grace Paley pointed toward my upraised hand, and someone gave me a microphone to speak into. I asked what she was reading now that spoke to her as a writer. The place was packed, remember. The room was mostly dark but for lights shining on Grace Paley in all her tiny furious genius.
“That’s a stupid question,” she scoffed. “I’m reading the same things you are.”
My literary hero declared my question stupid! By extension, my curiosity was stupid. My efforts at self-education inadequate. My self-esteem crushed. If I could have, I would have shrunk to the size of a pea and rolled out the nearest door and away into the night.
Of course I couldn’t do that. Instead, I sat and tried to reclaim my anonymity in the darkness while I listened to the rest of the questions and answers, though I remember none of them.
Later, Grace Paley shuffled into the dining room. I overheard her ask her attendant to remind her where she was. I noticed her exhaustion. Maybe her curt response to me was a symptom of her declining health rather than cause for personal shame. I let myself believe that.
Still, I venture this column with at least a modicum of trepidation left over from that night.
Stupid or not, my question about what other writers are reading continues to lead me to fresh voices and aspiration-worthy work. Sometimes other writers’ enthusiasm helps me locate work I might have overlooked or unlocks secrets of books I might have failed to appreciate otherwise. An artist friend turned me on to William Gay. A writer friend inspired me to go back and read all of Shirley Jackson – a newly discovered favorite I wrote about in this magazine last year. Lee Smith’s recent memoir catalogs many of her favorite regional writers. Reading about William Gay led me to some of the writers who influenced him. One voice always calls my way to the next.
What we read builds us as writers, too, so I love to hear what writers are working on, how they’re approaching their challenges, what motivates and interferes with their work, how what they’re reading resonates or interrogates what they’re writing.
So I introduce you to my column: My Stupid Question: What Writers Are Reading (and Writing). May it lead you to many writers that stimulate and fascinate you.
Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her fiction, essays, book reviews, and articles appear or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Gargoyle, Raleigh Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Streetlight Magazine, Sequestrum, The Georgia Review, [PANK], Charlottesville Family’s Bloom Magazine,and many other places. She holds an MFA in fiction from Lesley University.