51 pages 1 hour read

Grace Paley

A Conversation with My Father

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1972

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Summary: "A Conversation with My Father"

A writer sits next to her elderly, ailing father, who asks her to “write a simple story just once more […] the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov” (Paragraph 2). Wanting to please her father, the writer agrees, although she privately feels uncomfortable telling stories with a definite beginning and end: “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life” (Paragraph 3).

The writer jots down a one-paragraph story about a woman who begins doing drugs to feel closer to her teenaged son only to be abandoned by him when he gets clean. The writer’s father accuses her of “misunderstand[ing] [him] on purpose” by leaving out all detail in her story (Paragraph 7). He presses his daughter for more information, and she says that the woman is “handsome” with dark hair in “heavy braids” and that her son was born out of wedlock (Paragraphs 10, 12). This last detail bothers the writer’s father, who disagrees with his daughter’s claim that the detail is irrelevant. He says he thinks that the woman in the story isn’t “so smart,” and the writer agrees that this might be true because characters often thwart an author’s intentions for them (Paragraph 23). Nevertheless, she agrees to try telling the story again.

The second version of the story is longer. In it, the boy has a “busy brilliance” that he uses to launch a periodical that celebrates drug use (Paragraph 29). When his mother also begins doing drugs, their home becomes a hub for other “intellectual addicts” (Paragraph 30). Eventually, however, the boy meets and falls in love with a “stern and proselytizing girl,” who runs a publication on health foods (Paragraph 31). Inspired by her, the boy gets clean and moves in with the girl, but his mother proves “unable to give up what had become without her son and his friends a lonely habit” (Paragraph 34). Her neighbors continue to visit her, but she begins crying anytime they mention their own children.

After hearing the updated story, the father notes that his daughter is funny, but “can’t tell a plain story” (Paragraph 36). He does, however, approve of the way the story ended: “[W]hat a tragedy. The end of a person” (Paragraph 40). The writer protests that the woman could still turn her life around. She explains that the mother takes a job as a receptionist at a community clinic where her past experiences with addiction give her valuable insight. The father, however, insists that the woman’s story must end tragically, and he claims that his daughter refuses to acknowledge this basic fact.