Busy fingers are happy fingers

"Forget all about angles, and write a sentence. Then write another sentence, and another."

My long conversation with Judith Moore about writing began in 1980. We first met at a monthly campus ministry shindig for the faculty of Central Washington University, in Ellensburg, Washington. Judith was escaping the small-town tedium she describes in her book Never Eat Your Heart Out. I would drive 40 miles up from Yakima, where I taught philosophy at a community college. I wanted to meet professors I hoped could help me climb the academic ladder, a scheme Judith viewed with amusement. In personal conversation, you always had the feeling she was searching out things you were shy about telling the world.

In the beginning we mostly talked books. But each of us scribbled as well. I was working on fiction and sending travel articles to the Yakima Herald Republic. Judith began doing book reviews several times weekly for the Ellensburg paper. Her work on those reviews led to the Reading column she kept up in this paper for over a decade.

I showed Judith a short story I wrote in those years. "Well," she told me several days later, "it has a definite beginning, middle, and end." The assessment did not encourage me, and when she asked to see the novel I was writing, I demurred. The decision was bad and good. I never did receive insightful criticism she could have given me. But her honesty might have wrenched me to stick with my day job. As it was, I got the experience of at least finishing the attempt, though the novel still sits in a drawer unrevised.

In 1983, Judith left Washington to commit herself to a full-time writing life. Though she eventually went beyond writing about her personal life, she discovered the memoir as a way to get going, spilling out painful details about her childhood and childbearing years. Soon she left us would-be Ellensburg writers in the dust. For the rest of her life, writing was Judith's way to survive and live as happily as she could.

I came to San Diego in 1985. Seven years later I ran into Judith downtown. I was driving a taxi as a part-time job, and I spirited her around town for interviews she needed to do. By then she was an editor at the Reader. She wanted me to write about a painful and embarrassing episode in my life. I couldn't do it, I told her. But our paths crossed again in 1997. "Are you ready," she asked, "to write that story?" I relented and sent her 8000 words. She wrote back, asking what about this and what about that? She must have sent 25 queries. I expanded the story by another 10,000 words. It felt cathartic, but in the middle of it all, I told her over the phone how embarrassed I felt about the things I was confessing. "It's not like you murdered somebody," she replied.

After the story appeared, Judith gave me several assignments about philosophy and religion, the subjects I still was teaching. She even got me an indulgent series of six stories on the life of part-time professors, or "freeway fliers." The stories began a transition in my life, from abstraction to specifics in their own right and from simple self-expression to learning details I never imagined about the world.

One Sunday evening Judith called me and said, "Isn't it fun?" I had to say no, it wasn't fun, because I couldn't write and I felt depressed. "Busy fingers are happy fingers," she said lightheartedly, speaking to the childishness that was escaping me. But I couldn't find an angle to get my story started, I told her. "Forget all about angles," she then said with annoyance in her voice, "and write a sentence. Then write another sentence, and another." She knew whereof she spoke. Until the last week of her life, that's the way Judith Moore lived.

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