Though she was my editor, I never met Judith. I knew her instead via calls and e-mail. When she phoned, there'd be that throaty alto, so sure, so self-possessed. I'd grab a pen, and she'd dictate my assignment, then say, "It's a good story for you." Why that was so I never asked. I was grateful just to be called, to be trusted. She knew the story would find its disposition in me as I wrote it.
Judith's writing is what enticed me to want to write for the Reader. During the 1980s, I devoured her profiles, whether on Herbert Marcuse or a dwarf. How shapely the prose, how fascinated the author. In 1987, a dozen were collected in The Left Coast of Paradise, a book I often reread. In the 1990s, I cherished those sections from her novel-in-progress and especially her review-essays, pieces I razored out and saved.
For example, her fantasy-essay on the left-wing memoirist Sally Belfrage. Judith conjures a man in an airport bar who is attracted to the aging blonde: "Still gorgeous. Built nice." The red-diaper baby spills the spicy details, rebelling against her libertine parents, grieving over an abortion. The point-of-view shifts are flawless, even when Judith confesses, "I stayed up half a night reading Belfrage's memoir." Judith made reading as imaginative an enterprise for us as it was for her.
It was her personal voice on the page I treasured. So like Annie Dillard's in Teaching a Stone to Talk. Short sentences in series with diamond-hard nouns and snap-to-attention verbs; the spark of originality in such lines as "Don't be afraid to get mired in minutiae," from her encomium to the craft of newsy Christmas notes. Taken together, her sentences name their own minutiae, then gallop on with equestrian ease.
She once wrote, "Life is not literature." But in each of her pieces I found just the opposite: her literate portraits were abuzz with style and daring. So, too, was her "Reading" column, where the smartness of her questions provoked an often-desultory writer to focus.
Editorially, Judith elevated the Reader. She stopped my page flipping. Her writing wasn't reportorial; it was authorial. When I got a paper, I hoped she'd appear. And so in 1998, when she phoned about my submission -- a memoir piece called "Everlasting Uncertainty: How I Became a UC San Diego Marxist" -- and said in whiskey tones, "We like this and we'll pay you for it, and send me some ideas for stories," I thought, this is it. I'm quitting my day job to write. If one editor values my work, others will too. Judith's confidence birthed mine, as I'm sure it did many an author's.
That was almost ten years ago. Thanks to Judith and a few others like her, it's been my most creative decade. People think writers get somewhere via tenacity. Tenacity helps. What really helps is when an editor whose critical-creative voice you trust believes in you, prints you, and pays you. After that, the deadline is easy. A world minus such a rare begetter is what's hard.