I never met Judith Moore. To me she was a voice over the phone: slangy, half-cynical, eager to talk about her dog, and passionate about writing. I first talked to her in the summer of 1995, when I flew to San Diego from Boston to do several stories and learned she lived in Berkeley. She was polite but hesitant. After all, she might end up hating what I wrote. Luckily, she liked my stories, and our telephone conversations grew friendlier and longer, easily lasting an hour. She didn't give me assignments but assumed I could find stories on my own. When I told her my ideas, she might say, "So-and-So did that three years ago" or "That sounds like a one-trick pony" or "Jim doesn't want any more stories about the zoo," before settling on something she thought might work.
She was fierce about writers she didn't like, fierce about writers she said had done a bad job or were lazy. So I felt fortunate I didn't fall into that category. She never said much about my stories, never asked me to change anything. At times she might laugh at a detail or say that Jim liked something in particular. Now and then I wanted a more substantial compliment, but usually the most she said was, "Oh, you get it," meaning, I supposed, that I understood what she understood about writing.
More often Judith would talk about what books she was reading or ask what I was reading, and there would follow an excited exchange. Or she would talk about friends we had in common, and again her enthusiasm would take charge. "Oh, I simply love him," she might say. Or she would talk about Jim Holman, talk about his shyness, his idiosyncrasies, and how much she respected him. And again: "I simply love him!"
After several years I came to realize that "to have gotten it" was the greatest of her compliments. She held writers to a high standard, but once she felt a writer had gotten it, she stopped worrying about him or her. She took all writing extremely seriously -- nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. And she assumed that if someone else took it seriously, then that person would work hard to make it right. So she scorned poseurs and triflers. And while I've always thought I took writing seriously, Judith's attitude led me to work harder. Hearing her, I would think, "So writing really is a serious business after all," even though I'd never really doubted it, except sometimes during "the 4:00 a.m. oh-my-Gods," as Ray Carver used to call them.
Luckily, I still often hear Judith's voice in my head, urging me to make something better, to respect the medium, or simply to work harder. It also urges me to fight my own propensity for self-deception, to think a phrase, paragraph, or page is finished when it's not. During the ten years she read my work, she made me a better writer. And she keeps making me a better writer. I ask myself, "What would Judith think of this?" and right away I feel her passion to make a piece of writing as good as one can make it. I don't know if this keeps me honest, but it surely makes me work harder.