It took me weeks to get up the courage to show her any of my work, though she, in her typical way, kept prodding. (“I’m dying of curiosity!”) The story I finally gave her was not a story at all but the sort of thing Flannery O’Connor (another major American writer Susan did not love) had in mind when she complained about beginning fiction writers being “concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions.” Susan saw the problem at once. “You need an agon,” she said. And then, of course, she had to explain to me what that meant.
At other times she cautioned me against being too explicit, and she said I should try to write more elliptically and streamline the prose to get it moving at a faster clip. (“If there’s one thing modernism has taught us, it’s that speed is everything.”) Describing an evening as sultry, she told me, was as bad as describing someone as having distinguished gray hair.
Other than this, though, I remember very little that she said about anything I ever showed her that was helpful. Most of the problem lay with me: I was like a lot of the students I would end up teaching. It’s not criticism many young writers want, just praise, thank you very much. And Susan did offer praise; in fact, she was overgenerous. (“I’m so relieved,” she confessed, after reading my work that first time. And one could tell she really was. She had taught in a writing program and knew that having an MFA did not necessarily mean that you could write a sentence.) But because I did not like her fiction—because I saw so little to admire in her use of language, her style—I did not trust what she had to say about writing.