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The Village by the Sea: Author Paula Fox’s 1989 BGHB Fiction Award Acceptance

by Paula Fox

The Italian novelist, Cesare Pavese, wrote in his journal a few lines that speak eloquently about the struggle of writing and of the solace and significance of those moments and events which take account  of that struggle. Pavese writes:

To have written something that leaves you emptied of your vital powers

…to have poured out not only all you knew was in you, but all that you suspected and imagined, the turmoil, the shadowy visions, the subconscious; to have achieved that with long weariness and tension, learning caution through days of hesitation, sudden discoveries and lapses, concentrating all your life and energy on that one point; and then to realize that all this is as nothing unless it is welcomed by some sign, some word of human appreciation. To lack that warming re­sponse is to die of cold, to be speaking in the wilderness, to be alone.

Human appreciation, warming response, are not in one’s mind while one is writing. If they are, a certain paralysis takes place. Imagination plays possum; imagination is the first cas­ualty of self-consciousness. Apprehensions and speculations about what that mysterious person, the reader, will think and feel and say about what one writes brings work to a halt, and the daily self with its worries and regrets, its fretfulness and vanities, exerts its tyranny. But when a writer has luck, that self slips away and makes room for something else, for the story told by a voice that is, somehow, outside oneself, a voice which is often indistinct, a mumble, but which goes on and on until one day, one hour, the teller knows the tale is done.

It is then, when the pages lie on the table, that a writer won­ders how on earth it came about, and where  did it all come from? And it is then that one appreciates a voice saying, “Well! Look at this! Perhaps it is worth reading, even reading the whole story!”

When I was very young, during the Second World War, I got a job in a machine shop in New York City. I was the only female there. I was a bit persecuted by the machinists, who were both amused by and  resentful of the presence of a girl among the lathes and grinders where industrial diamonds were produced. The shop was on the fourteenth floor. There was a broad fire escape where, during a break, we, the workers, were permitted to have a smoke and a cup of coffee for a few moments. But the teasing got me down. One early morning, as I walked from my apartment to the shop on Irving Place, I began to tell myself a story. When it came time for the morning break, I began to tell the story to my fellow workers. I didn’t think  about it. I just did it. To my astonishment, they listened, and they wanted to know what happened next.

And so the next day, I told them. And the day after that, I managed to come up with a new story just long enough, ten minutes or so, for that morning break out on the fire escape. They began to be nicer to me. After all, you don’t want to kill Mother Goose as long as she keeps talking.

I want to give you my heartfelt thanks for this lovely award, this warming response.

Acceptance speech for the 1989 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction presented in Springfield, Massachusetts, on September 25, 1989 at the annual meeting of the New England Library Association. From the January/February 1990 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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