By Daryl Buck
Even to the untrained reader, it is obvious that Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father” is more about the act (or art) of writing than it is about a conversation. This metafiction’s foundation is a conversation between an eighty-six year old man and his daughter, who is the author.
In the conversation, the father asks his daughter to write a “compact and dramatic narrative” (344). He wants drama and details and, after hearing his daughter’s over generalized story, tells her that she left out facts. He even says that he doesn’t like senselessly talking trees (which is a crack on one of the author’s real stories). But on her second attempt, his daughter uses the term “The End.” This pleases him because he thinks stories should have a finality, or destiny, that can be (and should be) tragic. According to the father, the end of a story is the end of the story.
However, Paley uses the daughter’s voice to illustrate what she thinks a story should be. At first, she gives lip service to her father- and one might argue, to society – by telling a short story, then saying “O.K., Pa, that’s it […] an unadorned and miserable tale” (468). After discussing this first story with her father, she has another go at it and tells a longer story, with more details, ending in tragedy. But she has to argue with her father about whether this is truly the end. The daughter says about her story’s character “She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her in that house crying. (Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity)” (471). The daughter goes on to tell her dad what happened after “the end” of the story.
Paley does a great job of expressing her idea of writing in this story. It is odd that the summary of this thought is embodied in a sentence in just the third paragraph. In that paragraph she writes “[…P]lot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life” (467-8). With this, Paley lets us know that the end of a story is never really the end, but only a pause in a character’s destiny.