Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

The Trouble with Stories: Musings on the Metafiction of Margaret Atwood and Grace Paley

. . . and the Trouble with Deadlines

The blog entry that follows differs notably from the version I posted on October 17. The revision, posted October 21, omits many of the plot details of the earlier one and develops the examination of the three types of conflict that Atwood and Paley depict.

Last Thursday, when I gave my students copies of the earlier version as a model for their comparative analyses, I said it was still a work in progress, that there were additional changes I wanted to make. “It’s a serviceable draft”, I told them, “it gets the job done, but it could be better.” This version is better, but it’s still a draft or two from where I’d like it to be.

Why did I give my students the earlier less-polished version? Because I wanted them to have my model in hand a week before their own drafts were due.

That’s the trouble with deadlines: We have to meet them, ready or not.

But that trouble with deadlines also calls attention to the usefulness of imposing earlier deadlines–pre-deadline deadlines–as hard as that is. Two days before my students’ drafts are due, I have an additional model for them.

Stories look like life, but our daily lives don’t follow the pattern of fiction. That discrepancy between art and life forms the basis of both Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” and Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father.” Though stylistically different works of metafiction, Atwood’s how-to guide and Paley’s autobiographical dialogue similarly explore the limitations of plot structure and the artificial quality of endings.

Margaret Atwood's Murder in the Dark (1983) /
Margaret Atwood’s Murder in the Dark (1983) /

Atwood’s story takes the form of templates, beginning with A, a happy ending, followed by variations on plot, labeled B, C, D, and so on, that purportedly lead back to A. In B, Atwood’s first story-within-her-story, the narrator chronicles unrequited love as the source of the conflict essential to plot: “Mary falls in love with John but John doesn’t fall in love with Mary” (27). It’s a story, not merely an anecdote, because John and Mary’s opposing desires complicate their relationship: Mary wants love from John; John wants sex, not love, from Mary. The story reaches a crisis when Mary’s friends tell her they’ve seen John in a restaurant with another woman.

In C Atwood’s narrator offers another story of unrequited love but with more complications. Both John and Mary have other partners, and their story develops not only from the conflict between them but also from their internal conflicts: Mary loves James but sleeps with middle-aged John out of pity; while John, despite his love for Mary, cannot bring himself to leave his wife.

Story D lacks the conflicts of B and C. The couple at the center of D “have no problems,” the narrator tells us. Subsequently, D’s plot develops not from the couple’s issues with each other or their internal conflicts. Instead they struggle against a force of nature, namely a tidal wave—until, at the end of the story “[f]inally on high ground they clasp each other, wet and dripping and grateful, and continue as in A” (28).

In the end, Atwood’s narrator doesn’t return to the happy ending of A, though supposedly all of the letter-labeled variations on plot lead back to it. Instead, the narrator asserts that the only authentic ending is death and concludes with these lines:

So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.

That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.

Now try How and Why. (29)

Grace Paley's Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) /
Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) /

Atwood’s narrator keeps her distance both emotionally and spatially from the stories she tells, neither becoming a character nor inviting her readers to step into her characters’ lives. That approach makes “Happy Endings” more self-consciously metafictional than Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father.”

Upon the father’s request that his daughter “write a simple story just once more” (756), the daughter-narrator composes a story, which along with their conversation about it, yields the same variations on conflict presented in Atwood’s “Happy Endings” (with B, C, D, etc.), plot propelled by a character’s internal conflict, by a character’s conflict with another character, and by conflict with fate.

The father’s request prompts the first of the story’s conflicts, the daughter’s internal one. She wants to oblige her father by writing the kind of story he yearns to hear, what he calls “the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write” (756). But even as Paley’s narrator expresses her desire to write a story that will appeal to her father, she admits to herself that she hates the kind of story he craves: “I would like to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: ‘There was a woman . . .’ followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons but because it takes all hope away (756).

The story’s second source of conflict, the one between the daughter and her father, stems from the daughter’s story and her father’s dissatisfaction with it. After the daughter reads the first draft aloud, her father says “[y]ou misunderstood me on purpose. You know there’s a lot more to it than that. You know that. You left everything out” (756). To please him, or at least try to, she rewrites the story. She adds what Atwood’s narrator calls the “How and Why” (29), but the daughter’s revision doesn’t satisfy the father, either. He says to her: “I see you can’t tell a plain story” (758), but acknowledges that she was right to conclude the story with the words the end, viewing the end of the story as the end of the woman’s life. The daughter disagrees, telling her father that the end of the story isn’t the end of the character’s life. To give the protagonist, a junkie, a life after her addiction, the daughter revises her story yet again, depicting the woman as overcoming her habit and working as a receptionist at a clinic.

For the father, the daughter’s story still doesn’t ring true. He says to her: “Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?” (759). It’s the same conclusion that Atwood’s narrator reaches, that death is “the only authentic ending” (29). But Paley’s narrator disagrees with her father, and with Atwood’s narrator, proclaiming that “[e]veryone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life” (756). The daughter’s resistance to death as the end speaks not only to her frustration with the limitations of plot but also to the sadness and strain of facing her father’s impending death from heart disease: the fate that serves as the third of the story’s conflicts.

The types of conflict Paley dramatizes parallel those of “Happy Endings,” but without Atwood’s templates. Though less self-consciously metafictional, Paley’s conversation and the story-within-a-story that the narrator writes, conveys—as “Happy Endings” does—how the process of story-writing itself is fraught with the conflict that’s essential to the form.  As Paley’s narrator says to her father:

Actually 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 think of an ending good enough. (757)

When the narrator’s father asks how she solves that problem of story-writing, the daughter replies: “Well, you just have to let the story lie around till some agreement can be reached between you and the stubborn hero” (757). In Atwood‘s and Paley’s metafiction, that “stubborn hero” is the writer, herself, and the journey is the process of wrestling once again with the prescribed aesthetic form, with all of the limitations of plot and the artificial quality of the end.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Happy Endings.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Compact 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 27-29. Print.

Paley, Grace. “A Conversation with My Father.” The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Compact 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 756-59. Print.

For more on Atwood‘s and Paley’s fiction, see their Paris Review interviews:

Atwood, Margaret. The Art of Fiction No. 121: Interview with Mary Morris. the, The Paris Review, Winter 1990. n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.

Paley, Grace. The Art of Fiction No. 131: Interview with Jonathan Dee, Barbara Jones, and Larissa MacFarquhar. the The Paris Review, Fall 1992. n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.