An Essay on A Conversation with My Father by Grace Paley

Prompt: What different ideas about stories and storytelling do the narrator and her father seem to have in A CONVERSATION WITH MY FATHER? What might account for their different attitudes?


The narrator in A Conversation with My Father is a writer. We can tell that she has written many stories, because her father makes a comparison between the kind of story he wants her to write during the story and “the kind you used to write” (par. 2).


The narrator likes to have the element of hope in her stories. She feels that “everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life” (par. 3). She seems to write stories as if she is part of the audience. The story reveals itself to her as she writes it, and she is just as surprised by occurrences in her writing as one of her readers might be.


As she talks to her father about the main character in the story she creates for him, she tells him, “that’s the trouble with stories. People start out fantastic. You think they’re extraordinary, but it turns out as the work goes along, they’re just average with a good education. Sometimes the other way around, the person’s a kind of dumb innocent, but he outwits you and you can’t even think of an ending good enough” (par. 24).


The reader gets the sense that the narrator likes it when one of her characters “outwits” her. She doesn’t like to know how she will end a story when she begins it, because she enjoys the feeling of discovering the story as she writes.


So, when her father asks her “to write a simple story just once more…just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next,” the narrator seems to chafe at this (par. 2). She doesn’t want to write a story with a beginning “followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised…because it takes all hope away” (par. 3). An “absolute line” stretching between the beginning and end of a story means that every detail of the story can be seen clearly from the start. The ending can be known just by reading the beginning of the story. It’s too predictable. The narrator doesn’t want this. She “despises” this kind of “plot”. As she tells the story she wants to experience twists and turns. She wants the line to go around corners that she can’t see around until she gets to them.


It’s like she sees writing the story as a kind of collaborative act between herself and her characters. She tells her father that sometimes “you just have to let the story lie around till some agreement can be reached between you and the stubborn hero” (par. 26). In this view of storytelling, the story itself and the characters in the story are lively and active participants in the act of writing. The narrator sees herself as just a part of the storytelling process. She doesn’t control it; she works with it.


The interesting thing about the story the narrator tells her father is that the narrator took the story from real life. It’s actually the story of one of her neighbors and “had been happening for a couple of years right across the street” (par. 4). The narrator tells the story twice. The second time is lengthier and has more detail, but both times the general gist is that a mother and son start using heroin together. The son starts dating a girl who gets him to stop using, but the mother is unable to stop using, so the son and new girlfriend cut ties with her until she gets clean. The story ends with the mother alone and crying.


The narrator has taken the tragic turn of events in the life of one of her neighbors and made it into a story for her father. Her intention is to tell the kind of simple story that her father has requested, where one event follows another in a clear plot. However, the father is not satisfied with the story and feels that his daughter has not told the kind of story that he asked for. After the first telling, the one that is so short that it is only a short paragraph and includes almost no details, the father complains, “You left everything out.” The narrator misinterpreted her father’s request for a straightforward plot as a desire for brevity.


The father doesn’t want brevity. He rather seems to want the events in the story to logically follow one another. He criticizes one of the narrator’s other stories, because it contains nonsensical elements like “people sitting in trees talking senselessly, [and] voices from who knows where” (par. 8). In the current story he wants to know details like “what were her [the mother] parents like…that she became such a person” (par. 13). Knowing such a detail helps the father feel like he can make sense of the mother character. To the father someone’s family background can help explain why they would make the choice to become a drug addict or not. Instead of the elements of surprise that the narrator desires, the father wants a logical and clear series of events.


Four times in the text the father complains about the narrator’s sense of humor and/or constant joking. He goes so far as to say that his daughter’s “main trouble [as a writer]” is that she “[doesn’t] want to recognize [tragedy]” (par. 42). To the father, sometimes the events in a story are clearly leading to an unhappy ending, and that ending cannot be avoided. As the narrator tries to write in a surprise that will give the story a happy ending, the father insists that the tragic ending must be faced. In fact, the final lines of the piece are the father asking the narrator, “When will you look [tragedy] in the face?” (par. 51).


To the father, the narrator’s joking, in the story and in their real lives, is a symbol of her refusal to deal with the real facts of life, even if they are unpleasant. As they share this moment of storytelling, the narrator and her father are in the midst of dealing with a very unpleasant situation: the father’s illness which is leading to his impending death. The piece begins with the narrator describing her father’s heart as a “bloody motor” that is “old and will not do certain jobs any more” (par 1). The father himself is eighty-six years old. He no longer has the strength to walk, and he is propped up in bed offering “last-minute advice” and making requests. Even though she doesn’t do it to his satisfaction, the narrator tries to fulfill her father’s request for a simple story, because you don’t deny the requests of someone who is dying. The narrator tries to listen to her father’s criticisms of her story, because the advice someone gives out as they are dying, especially if they have lived a long life, is often considered sage wisdom.


The narrator can’t quite bring herself to listen, though. She feels a “responsibility” to the character in her story and to the real neighbor woman the character is based upon. The narrator says of the mother character, “She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in that house crying.” (par. 45). If she can’t save the real woman she can at least give the character a happy ending, and she does. She allows the mother character to surprise us. Against all odds, she triumphs over her addiction. She becomes “the receptionist in a storefront community clinic…most of the customers are young people, some old friends” (par. 46). So, even though her son never comes home again she finds meaning and fulfillment in helping others who are in the same predicament she was in. The head doctor at the clinic admires her, and she becomes a hero of sorts.


It is a hopeful end, which is the exact opposite of what the father wanted from the story. He wants a story that starts out with such unhappy events to end unhappily. In the end he feels there should be “no hope” (par. 42). It could be said in his own story there is no hope. He is in old age, and his body is failing him. By his side is a daughter who he knows will soon be without him. His impending death is the tragedy that he knows is coming for the narrator. In her stories, the father sees the narrator avoid the unavoidable by adding happy endings to situations that seem impossible. The father knows, though, that there will be no avoiding the pain that will come when he inevitably dies.


The father says to the narrator, “In your own life, too, you have to look [tragedy] in the face” (par. 44). If the narrator cannot deal with sad consequences in the stories she tells, how will she deal with the sad consequences of her own father’s death? No doubt the father is wondering this as he listens to his daughter’s storytelling.

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