Characters Don't Change, but Readers Do

The novelist and poet Alice Mattison discusses finding inspiration in the unconventional short stories of Grace Paley.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

In the 1970s, Alice Mattison made a decision that would transform her life: She hired a babysitter to care for her infant son, which gave her two two-hour shifts a week in which to write. At first she worked only in the basement of her house, her typewriter keys clacking over the rumble of the washing machine, stopping every now and then to fold laundry between paragraphs. It didn’t matter that outward successes were few and far between—the fact that she earned only $35 for her first published poem, or that it took three years to publish another. “The time in the basement changed me,” she writes, in the introduction to her new book The Kite and the String. “Writing emerged, dominant, undeniable.”

But it wasn’t until she discovered Grace Paley that Mattison gained the confidence to write fiction. In a conversation for this series, she explained how Paley’s stories—short, nimble, free-wheeling, conversational—get away with breaking all the rules. We discussed Paley’s classic “A Conversation with My Father,” which demonstrates how a short story without a conventional plot can nonetheless feel complete, and why the old axiom that a characters must undergo fundamental change isn’t necessarily true.

The Kite and the String, a book-length master class that draws on years of teaching, reading, and first-hand experience, argues that good writing is all about balance: the kite-like creative unconscious also needs a steady set of hands manning the line. Alice Mattison is the author of six novels (most recently, When We Argued All Night) four story collections, and three books of poetry, and her work appears in venues like The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and The New York Times. She teaches creative writing at Bennington College, and spoke to me by phone.

Alice Mattison: When I discovered Grace Paley, I had little kids, I was teaching part-time, and I was writing poems—sending them out and getting them rejected. I don’t think I was ambitious enough to think that I might one day be a writer. I was thinking, “Maybe I’ll get that poem published." And: “Maybe eventually I could learn to write a story.” I had a dream of writing fiction, but I didn’t know how. Most of the short stories I’d read were by James Joyce or Henry James, and I wasn’t going to write stories like that.

Then I took Grace Paley’s book The Little Disturbances of Man from the public library. I remember where I was sitting as I read the book. And as I read, I began to think maybe I could write short stories. It could have been because she was a woman, or because she wrote about ordinary life—not about Europe, not about people of wealth and stature. These stories were about urban people, some of them Jews, like me. She was frank about her politics in her fiction; that mattered to me. The ordinariness spoke to me.

From Paley, I learned that I could write about lives and feelings like those I knew. Also that I didn’t have to imitate a 19th-century writer to structure stories. Her stories didn’t have elaborate, suspenseful plots. And yet, for a long time after I encountered her, the stories I wrote weren’t really stories. Paley’s stories have little plot, but are complete. In mine, nothing happened at all. I didn’t understand the difference between an incident and a short story.

How can you write a complete story without a conventional plot? We often hear that in short stories, the main character must change. But in some stories, including some by Grace Paley, the characters don’t change. Instead, her stories change the reader. You’re different by the time you reach the end.

Paley’s story “A Conversation with my Father," is an example. The narrator’s father is on his deathbed—we learn that right at the beginning. He’s having trouble with his lungs, and he’s on an oxygen machine. And he complains to his daughter, the narrator, about the stories she’s been writing.

“I would like you to write a simple story just once more,” he says, “the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.”

Sure, the daughter thinks. She can do that. As she puts it:

“I want to please him, though I don’t remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: ‘There was a woman ...’ followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”

What she says is wonderfully contradictory. “Why not?”, she thinks—but, at the same time, she says she despises the very idea of such a story.

The narrator makes up a story about a woman who becomes a heroin addict in solidarity with her son, who is a heroin addict. He gets clean, and she does not, and she loses him. The father is upset with the story—and he’s right, the first version is just bare bones. So she expands it and tells the story again, explains what it is that attracts the son about drugs, what it’s like for him as an addict, how a woman convinces him to get off drugs and eat healthy, organic food. It’s all very interesting. There are more details in the second version, but the outcome is the same.

The father doesn’t like the second story either, except for one part: its final words, “The End.”

“The end. You were right to put that down. The end.”

I didn’t want to argue, but I had to say, “Well, it is not necessarily the end, Pa.”

“Yes,” he said, “what a tragedy. The end of a person.”

“No, Pa,” I begged him. “It doesn’t have to be. She’s only about forty. She could be a hundred different things in this world as time goes on. A teacher or a social worker. An ex-junkie! Sometimes it’s better than having a master’s in education.”

“Jokes,” he said. “As a writer that’s your main trouble. You don’t want to recognize it, Tragedy! Plain tragedy! Historical tragedy! No hope. The end.”

And we’re reminded of what’s really going on. Their argument becomes about more than storytelling. The narrator still believes in “the open destiny of life.” The father can’t. And he’s dying. The father and daughter will be separated forever, like the mother and son in the story. The reader, at this point, may have forgotten that fact—the oxygen machine—but then the father puts the tubes back into his nostrils and it hits us: she’s going to lose him.

In this story I think neither character changes. The father is stuck in his perspective, and the daughter remains faithful to hers. This “conversation” is less a dialogue than two characters talking past each other. But there is a shift, and that’s what makes the story—it’s just that it happens in the reader, not in one of the characters. We don’t expect to agree with the father: he thinks the story that his daughter tells is tragic because the woman in it won’t change. We—agreeing with the daughter—feel that life has more possibility than that. But then Paley ends the story with the dying father’s accusation that her daughter won’t look tragedy in the face. We feel the tragedy of the father and daughter’s separation, the inevitability of his death. Our perspective shifts toward his: we change.

I had never really thought that in a story the protagonist always changes, but I couldn’t have explained why until I met a student I taught about ten years ago. Her name was Catherine. She was interested in alcoholism: many of her characters were drunks who couldn’t reform. She’d been told many times that in a story the protagonist always changes. This made her angry—it was contrary to something she knew about life. Why couldn’t she write stories about those drunks?

Catherine forced me to ask myself: What makes it a story if it’s not the protagonist changing? If a story says that Steve got drunk on Monday, and he got drunk on Tuesday, and he got drunk on Wednesday, and on Thursday, and on Friday—it obviously isn’t a complete story. But if on Wednesday, Steve thinks, Maybe I’ll give up drinking, and on Thursday he goes to an AA meeting, but doesn’t walk through the door, and on Friday he gets drunk again—that is a story. Because something shifts in us—we think he can change—and we understand.

On the most basic level, this is what a story consists of: Something happens, and then something else happens, and then you come to the end, and it makes you think—huh! That’s a stupidly simple formula, but it’s true. Something happens, and then something shifts. Something occurs that changes things from the way they are at the beginning, then brings them back to the way they were, or brings us and the characters somewhere altogether new. Of course, conventional plots often follow this formula: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. But it’s also key to understanding unconventional stories like Paley’s, which are short and subtle and yet somehow complete. We need the feeling that we’ve gone a distance and then arrived somewhere. Often nothing changes for the protagonist, but something changes for the reader: we understand the characters in a new way.

Many of us grow up assuming that books are about places other than the one we live in, which is so familiar that it couldn’t possibly be in a book. Grace Paley taught me that I didn’t have to become someone else, from somewhere else, to write. That this girl from Brooklyn—which is what I am, from Brooklyn in the days when Brooklyn had no glamour—could write a story. I often ask my students where they grew up, and encourage them to read the writers from there. Sometimes it can be revelatory to realize that somebody actually put the town or neighborhood where you grew up into a book. But Grace Paley seems to be a good ancestor for a lot of people who aren’t New York Jews. She speaks to a great many new writers. And maybe what she’s saying is: you can start with the person you already are, whomever that may be.