Grace Paley died and I am devastated. She was my mentor when I returned to college in midlife. She was the best teacher I ever had and could bind together those gaping chasms between mother and writer, doer and thinker, nature and culture, personal and professional. She was free with her hands and hugged all her students: young and old, male and female. How such a small, feisty woman could be so engulfing and soft is another of the contradictions she reconciled.
She'd poke her finger at a passage in each paper I submitted, suggesting I think about changing one word. I was startled, maybe even insulted at first. Then I'd do what she said until the whole piece snapped into focus around a one-word revision.
Grace said writing is about looking under a rock to see what's there. She'd tell us to take one day of our time just for ourselves. "Wake up, wash your hair, move through your room until words speak for themselves. You have to give them space." Her greatest love in writing was editing, a process that she always separated from creating the first draft. "What you have," she said, "is a big, rough half-hewn stone. Sand it, polish it, smooth it. Let the sculpture come out."
It might have been fun to tell her I went on to become a star writer, but I didn't. It wouldn't have been that big a deal to her. "So how's your son?" she would have asked.
What mattered to Grace was what you did with whatever truth you found under the rock.