Judith Moore called me in the fall of 1995, when I was living temporarily in Laguna Beach and teaching at UC Irvine for a semester. Judith was familiar with my poems and deduced from some of them that I'd grown up on a dairy farm. She wanted me to write an article for the Reader on one of the last remaining dairymen in San Diego County, a man named Pete Verboom. He lived in the Pauma Valley, only 40 or 50 miles from Laguna but an entirely different world.
She said the article had to be at least 6000 words long. Then she said something I hadn't heard before in my writing life and haven't heard much since: the Reader would pay me! I said, "Sure" to Judith. To myself, I said, "How hard can this be?"
A few days later, I said to myself, "I don't have the slightest idea how to do this!" I visited Mr. Verboom's farm for a few days -- put on the rubber boots, watched him and his brother pull some calves, interviewed him and his wife at length. Mr. Verboom gave me a journal that his father had written on the voyage from postwar Holland to a new life in the USA, an aid to the assignment. I tried to write the article -- it was a miserable mess, with awkward, dopey sentences. Nonfiction is a craft, and even though I've read a great deal of it, I had no idea how to write it.
And over and over again Judith helped. I was back in the East, living in Boston (where my daughter was) and commuting to New York (where I taught). Judith gave me tips: "The people you interview write a lot of the article for you!" She cajoled me. She encouraged me. She got tough on my ass. I remember once saying something like "So you're giving me permission to..." and she said, "No, I'm telling you to!" She beat me over the head for using too many passive verbs, the same thing for which I beat my poetry students over the head. We'd often talk for two or three hours at a time -- about this article and others that followed. She spent a huge amount of energy trying to help me write decent prose sentences.
We became friends during these talks too, telling each other our sad and our happy stories. She was my teacher -- getting me up to maybe a B- level. Not bad, considering where I began: sub-F.
Judith was a wonderful writer. I loved her long and beautifully (a word she forbade me to use!) written series on the San Diego mob figure Frank Bompensiero. I hope these articles get published in a book someday. They should have been in the running for a Pulitzer. I loved her book Never Eat Your Heart Out. I loved her last book, Fat Girl. She was just beginning to get major recognition for her own work. I was delighted when she got a Guggenheim Fellowship before she became ill. We must have talked and (later) e-mailed for hundreds of hours in the nearly ten years I knew her. Judith Moore was my friend. I loved her. We never once met in person.