This memorable passage from Sigrid Nunez’s gemlike memoir of the year she spent under the influence of Susan Sontag begins with a description of a trip to New Orleans with Sontag, who was then at the height of her literary powers and intellectual fame. Nunez goes on to detail some of the explicit lessons Sontag taught her—about treating writing as a vocation rather than a career, about giving yourself permission to devote yourself to reading and writing even when that devotion is difficult to justify. With great subtlety, Nunez uses her intimate experience of the particulars of Sontag’s work habits and lifestyle to illuminate some of the tensions that all writers experience—tensions between the need to write without fetters and the need to make money, and between the confidence that’s necessary to accomplish anything and the insecurity that can act as a goad, or a filter.
“If you’re lucky, you might have had a great boss, teacher, leader, guru, parent or friend who encountered you at a receptive moment and shaped the direction your life would take from that moment on. If you’re unlucky, you might have had a boss, teacher, leader, guru, parent or friend who encountered you at a vulnerable moment and warped the direction your life would take from that moment on. There’s a fine line between these two varieties of experience—or maybe there is no line. Maybe to shape is always to deform. Here, Nunez treats readers to a succinct cost-benefit analysis of the pleasures and perils of acquiring a charismatic mentor. The unlucky—or is it lucky?—among us will relate.
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Illustration by Kjell Reigstad.