Mother Reader

"Don't self-publish anything; it makes you look like a slut."

Judith often referred to herself in the third person as "Mother Reader." An appropriate epithet, considering that after coming across my blog, she elicited a job offer from "Father Reader," thus giving birth to my career. Like a good mother, she paid close attention to my growth, nurtured and disciplined my writing, scolded and cajoled my ego, and groomed me for a life in publishing.

Judith believed that a writer is never perfect — there is always room for improvement. To emphasize this point, she was miserly with words of praise. Each week I'd send her my column, and each week I would wait in agony for her feedback to arrive in my inbox. When she was pleased with my work, she'd spend one word: "Fun," "Interesting," or "Charming." The six days following such responses were glorious, the word-of-the-week cradled lovingly and with pride at the forefront of my consciousness. But a writer is never perfect, and there is always room for improvement.

"Barbarella, whom I greatly admire," Judith wrote in response to one of my stories, "I confess that this piece bored me." She was careful not to crush a fragile ego but always blunt with her advice. Many documents were returned to me with every adverb and "just" highlighted in green, followed by "DON'T EVER USE THIS WORD." Sometimes she'd tear through a story adding "CLICHÉ" at the end of most paragraphs.

"Don't self-publish anything; it makes you look like a slut," Judith once told me over the phone. She wanted to see me succeed and urged me to "work work work" and "write read read write. If you're reading a book a week now," Judith said, "then make it two books a week. And if you're reading two, make it three."

Judith would send me books, including James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. "Mother Reader hopes that you take seriously the reading of Agee," she wrote. "I want you to read and study this book. My hope is that you will enjoy the book, but my hope is also that you will study what he has done and how. I want you to note especially his close attention to detail, the way he gives 'soul' to every door or dress or nose he describes. For people my age (ancient), this was one of those formative books that made us want to grow up and try to become writers."

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.

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