Imagining the Present

by Grace Paley

This transcript of Paley’s speech at T&W’s Educating the Imagination forum was originally published in 1996.  —Ed.

I just looked over at my children [in the audience]. It’s very embarrassing to be spoken about in front of one’s children.

Recently I was trying to remember exactly how we started Teachers & Writers Collaborative. It was in 1966. I felt kind of shy with all those people: Anne Sexton, Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, Mitch Goodman, Tinka Topping, and Paul Lauter, and Florence Howe, who later created, with others, the Feminist Press. There were a lot of things happening around that time. We had learned about money being available from “up there,” you know, from that bad old State that people are always talking about these days, and that the money was for the children of our city, for literature and literacy. And as it turned out, the ideas that were discovered in our early meetings became something that happened all over the country, so that wherever you go, you’ll find poets in the schools, and you’ll find different organizations bringing them to elementary schools, high schools, and community centers. The results were very far-reaching.

Not long ago I gave a talk at the Associated Writing Programs. The AWP is not so much about children as about extremely grown-ups, specifically people teaching writing in the colleges. It has become a profession, with a whole bunch of degrees that one has to have to do that. But even that—the idea that writing could be taught…. One of the first questions…. I seem to be darting around, but that’s the way I write, so you get the idea—or you don’t. The idea of teaching writing seems very peculiar to some people. Any time I speak in public, someone will get up and say, “You can’t teach writing.” What they mean is that you can teach grammar and spelling, but you can’t teach writing. They’re under the impression that you can teach math—the same people!—whereas writing is language, something you’ve been doing all your life, since you were a little tiny kid, right? So the idea of teaching writing: what did it mean, finally?

For some people it meant that as a teacher you had to make great writers: either a student becomes a great writer, or what’s the point in teaching writing? Whereas the person who believes that you can teach math never thinks about whether or not the idea is to make a great mathematician. Nor does the history teacher believe that it is essential, in order to be an honorable teacher of history, to produce a great or famous historian. In a way, they are right about what they are doing: they want to produce women and men who love history, or math, or chemistry, and would understand what they (the teachers) are doing, and love and maybe understand the world a little bit better. Our idea was that children—by writing, by putting down words, by reading, by beginning to love literature, by the inventiveness of listening to one another—could begin to understand the world better and begin to make a better world for themselves. That always seemed to me such a natural idea that I’ve never understood why it took so much aggressiveness and so much time to get it started.

At one of our early meetings, we were walking along the beach, and Muriel, Anne, and Denise were reading poems to each other in the evening, which made it very beautiful and memorable for us. And then we found out that we had to write a grant! We had to figure out how to write a proposal to ask for the money. We sat there and wrote it, but one of our big arguments was about how to write it. Someone had already informed us that there was a whole grant-writing language. It was new at that time, but it was “interesting.” But we argued among ourselves, saying, “We’re trying to get money for this Teachers & Writers program, and we’re writers, so let’s just write it!” Finally, as we came to the end of it, there were a couple of people, more experienced in this kind of writing, who looked at it and said, “You can’t do it this way. You have to use a certain kind of form for it.” But we felt extremely brave, saying, “No, we’re not going to end that way, we’re gonna end this with a noble statement as writers.”

Now I want to say just a few things about the imagination. I’ve looked at a lot of other speeches about writing and the imagination, and I’m all for it. I’m not against the imagination, so I don’t want you to think that. But I read somewhere that Isaac Babel said that his main problem was that he had no imagination. And I thought about that a lot, because if you read him, you know that what he’s trying to say—except for a few pieces, such as “The Sin of Jesus”—is very close to his life, the whole terrifying life that he led in the Red Cossack Army during I guess 1920, ’21, ’22, and further. And so I tried to figure out exactly what he meant. I guess what he really didn’t understand was the amount of imagination it would take to understand what had happened, what was real, what is going on. There were people all around him, who if they had tried to tell him what was going on in this particular hut or pogrom-suffering village, couldn’t have. Yet, what he was able to do was to use what he did know about life and poverty and war to stretch toward what he didn’t know about the Cossack Red Army. So I think about that as the fact of the imagination.

That leads me to think of the headline that Jordan Davis held up when he introduced me: “McNamara Admits He Made a Mistake.” Well, McNamara finally developed an imagination, is all I can say. Of course what he may have imagined is what was going to happen to him in the next world if he didn’t admit it. Something like George Wallace the other day at Selma, who said he had been wrong, also. But the idea of McNamara’s living at that time, allowing some of us to spend either our youth or the prime of our lives fighting in or against that war, and trying to help people imagine what was happening in Vietnam, while he and a few others were up there thinking, “You know, it’s possible we’re not right, it’s possible we shouldn’t have gone in there, maybe we made a mistake,” and then not speaking another word about it for the next thirty years!

At that time, hints came to us that there was dissension in the administrations, and that the children of a lot of those people, being young and healthy, had some idea that this was a terrible business that their parents were involved in. I mean, it’s bad enough being the child of any parent: you suspect how wrong your parents are, from the beginning. You think they’re wrong, but you don’t know they’re wrong. But these young people knew their parents were wrong, and had to live with that. What I’m trying to say is: Where if the imagination in that? What do we need our imaginations for?

First of all, we need our imaginations to imagine what is happening to other people around us, to try to understand the lives of other people. I know there’s a certain political view that you mustn’t write about anyone except yourself, your own exact people. Of course it’s very hard for anyone to know who their exact people are, anyway. But it’s very limiting. The idea of writing from the heads or from the view or the experience of other people, of another people, of another life, or even of just the people across the street or next door, is probably one of the most important acts of the imagination that you can have and that can be useful to the world.

Certainly one of the things that haven’t been sufficiently imagined yet, apart from the deaths of 60,000 Americans, is the terrible suffering that the Vietnamese people have been subjected to all of these years. From the very beginning of the war, and then after the war, when every-one—the left with joy, the right with bitter rage—ran around saying that the poor little Vietnamese had beaten the Americans. Well, they never did. We—the U.S., that is—beat them. And we continued to embargo them and keep them in terrible poverty, with unexploded bombs going off under their children for all these years. So, not to be able to imagine the suffering that we imposed directly on them, and for this present bunch of guys in Congress not to be able to imagine the suffering that they’re going to impose on the poor people of this country—it’s hard for me to believe that they can’t imagine it. I can’t believe it.

So I’m talking about the imagination in another way. We’re living in a very lucky time, in some respects, in this country. As far as literature is concerned, we’re really very fortunate, and I think that Teachers & Writers and poets-in-the-schools programs and the other organizations that have been involved in this have had something to do with it. We’re living in a time when the different peoples in this country are being heard from, for the first time. I’m happy to have lived into this time, when we hear the voices of Native Americans—twenty or twenty-five years ago you didn’t even know they were writing, apart from token publication. That was the general condition of American literature at that time. The voices of African American men and women, the voices of women of all colors, Asian women, Asian men, all these people—this is this country—and we’re living at a time when we’re hearing the voices of all these people. And the percentage of good work is higher maybe because there are still too few. So whenever I hear complaints about what’s going on in literature in this country—grouse grouse grouse—those people without imagination talk that way—I want to remind them: When before now did this happen? But whenever they want to stop you, they say, with that denigrating tone, “multiculturalism.” Or “diversity.” Or “political correctness.” They use those words in a way to try to shut all of us up. This is what the imagination means to me: to know that this multiplicity of voices is a wonderful fact and that we’re lucky, especially the young people, to be living here at this time. My imagination tells me that if we let this present political climate defeat us, my children and my grandchildren will be in terrible trouble.

I will probably think of other things to say to you, when I’m asleep, but it won’t bother me so much because I’ll know you’re all asleep too! But I would like to thank all of you. I think you’ve overrated me somewhat, but if there’s ever a time in your life when you like to be overrated, it’s when you’re old. I thank you for doing it, and I thank all the young people and children who are here tonight, who have been writing poems and plays. They honor us with their presence. The child, you know, is the reason for life. You children are our reason for living. Thank you, all.


About the author:
Grace Paley, one of the founders of T&W, was an American short-story writer and poet known for her realistic seriocomic portrayals of working-class New Yorkers and for her political activism. Her many books include New and Collected Poems (Tilbury House), The Collected Stories (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and, with Vera B. Williams, Long Walks and Intimate Talks (Feminist Press).

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