‘Conversation With My Father’ by Grace Paley

The first time I sent some of my own stories to my father, he messaged me excitedly about a week later, asking when we could talk. I went out into the library forecourt and untangled the white ear buds so I could pace around while we spoke, without having to hold the phone to my ear in that way that becomes uncomfortably warm after a while. This was the time in my life when I had happy access to the Eduroam wifi network. My father lived on a different continent, and it was already evening for him. He told me he had read my stories and that he had an idea about what to do with them. I would print them in a magazine, he said, and the magazine would run a competition among its readers to write endings for my stories. Because, he said, as it stood, my stories had no endings. The set-ups were fine, but then they just stopped. Plus, he hinted, the magazine competition could be a good money-making scheme. I think about that conversation with my father when I read this Grace Paley story, in which the narrator’s elderly dad asks his writer child to please, for god’s sake, write a simple story: “Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.” What makes the story interesting is that the narrator loves her father, and is willing to humour him, up to a point. The discussion that follows is about the nature of storytelling, filial and parental love, and whether people have the right to change, either inside or outside of fiction.

First published in the New American Review, 1972. Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, 1974, FSG, and Collected Stories, FSG/Virago, 1994. Hear Ali Smith read it on the Guardian podcast here

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