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.”