Now, over a year later, I'm still trying to get past the third chapter of Agee's masterpiece. Judith once predicted, in a moment of unprecedented gushing, that I would "grow up to be a superb writer." She knew then, as I know now, that I have a long way to go. I am still striving in her death, as I strived in her life, to make Mother Reader proud.
Build Your Writing Muscles
"Writing is like a muscle, honey." Judith always called me honey, and her voice was warm like cinnamon tea. "The more you use the muscle, the stronger you get; the more you can write. Write in the mornings, honey. When you first wake up."
She called me that day because in our e-mail conversations I mentioned that I was stuck on a TV article, about 200 words short.
Her advice worked. My first column took me a week to write. A 400-word opening story followed by 10 capsules of 100 words each: 1200 to 1400 words total. I stopped and started again, edited and revised, and seven days later I was finished.
Now I can write one in four hours.
I write in the mornings. With a mind still frizzy from sleep and slowly popping alive with the help of coffee, I sit and write. Every morning. A short story about a dog and a bird on the sidewalk. An observation of a pregnant teen girl struggling to get aboard a bus. All crap. All of it. Stuff you'd conscript to the bottom drawer if not the bottom of a ravine.
But I talked with the page, and the conversations came easier.
I talked with Judith on the phone, and our conversations came harder. I didn't know she was dying of cancer and the treatments were causing her great grief. She never told me she was sick.
"Would you please let me finish what I was saying," Judith snapped during our last talk.
"Yes. Of course. I apologize, Judith. Go ahead. Wait. Judith?" I interrupted again.
"Yes, honey," cinnamon tea.
"Are you okay?"
"Yes, honey. You know...I'm going to be just fine."
Let the Tape Recorder Do the Work
I could almost be tempted to resent Judith for getting my hopes up. When she signed my copy of her food memoir Never Eat Your Heart Out back in 1997, she inscribed it, "To Matt (our big new talent)...With admiration, Judith."
I was 24, two years at the Reader. She was a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship winner (and later she would garner a Guggenheim). She had been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the house that published Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor, two of my literary idols. She had been reviewed, favorably, in the New York Times. "Big new talent"? "With admiration"? I would have been giddy, except I was incredulous.
It got better (worse). She encouraged me to apply for the NEA myself, telling me that they wouldn't even consider me for a Guggenheim unless I already had the NEA. (Well, of course not.) She dropped tidbits from the literary table -- "They used to call them Toyota grants, because every writer who got one went out and bought a new car." I couldn't hear enough of this sort of thing.
Then, in 2001, she called and asked me, "How would you like an agent?" One of the happier days of my life. I remember just where I stood in the kitchen as we talked on the phone, and my face retains the muscle memory of the goofy grin I sported. I had all sorts of literary aspirations, and I knew that an agent was crucial for getting them realized. Now Judith was offering a reference, the surest route to representation.
I sent the agent some samples. She liked them. When she called, we talked about first, second, and third books. After my first manuscript went out -- a collection of columns I'd written for the Reader about being a young father -- Judith called to advise me. "If Norton offers you $80,000 and FSG offers $50,000, take FSG. It guarantees you a review in the Times, and everybody will pay attention. You'll have a much better chance with the awards people." I swooned and supposed I could make do with $50K.
But FSG didn't offer anything. Neither did Norton. Nor any of the other publishers we tried. The agent detected something missing from the manuscript, some element with enough weight to give it gravitas. She was right, of course, but at the time, I couldn't figure out how to fix it. I sent the agent the raw material for the second book. And a chunk of the third. Nothing came of it. The agent and I parted company.
When, years later, I managed to land a book contract (for far less money), I did have Judith to thank. It was (once again) through the use of her good name that I started on my road to finding a publisher. But I'm 0 for 2 on the NEA, and something of a seasoned veteran on the literary-rejection front. The "big new talent," as it turns out, has nothing on the big old talent.
So as I said, I could almost be tempted to resent her for painting my future in such rosy hues. But only tempted, only almost tempted. Because along with the promises of future glory, she also gave me excellent counsel about the day job, the writing that actually paid.
My first story for the Reader came in at 12,000 words, which editorial promptly slashed to 8000. I'm pretty sure that the 4000 words that didn't make it were all mine -- as opposed to quotations from my interviews. Words I had slaved over, little creative outpourings amid the dry reportage -- this was my audition piece, after all. I was sad to see them go.
"Honey, let the tape recorder do the work." That was her consoling advice. I can see how it might sound like an encouragement toward laziness, or even a dismissal of the writer's craft, sort of like when my wife teases that I am a "word pusher." But it was neither of those things. Rather, it was an acknowledgment that the subject, together with the person who knows about the subject, was the center of the story -- not me, and certainly not my prose. The craft lay in introducing the subject, in providing structure and order to the quotations, in making something clear and focused out of meandering conversations and collected facts. And then getting out of the way.