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Sontag’s Rules

From Issue 41, Sigrid Nunez’s essay on Susan Sontag. You can read about the origins of the essay here.

Sontag’s Rules

It was my first time ever going to a writers’ colony, and, for some reason I no longer recall, I had to postpone the date on which I was supposed to arrive. I was concerned that arriving late would be frowned on. But Susan insisted this was not a bad thing. “It’s always good to start off anything by breaking a rule.” For her, arriving late was the rule. “The only time I worry about being late is for a plane or for the opera.” When people complained about always having to wait for her, she was unapologetic. “I figure, if people aren’t smart enough to bring along something to read . . .”  (But when certain people wised up and she ended up having to wait for them, she was not pleased.) My own fastidious punctuality could get on her nerves. Out to lunch with her one day, realizing I was going to be late getting back to work, I jumped up from the table, and she scoffed. “Sit down! You don’t have to be there on the dot. Don’t be so servile.” Servile was one of her favorite words.

Exceptionalism. Was it really a good idea for the three of us—Susan, her son, myself—to share the same household? Shouldn’t David and I get a place of our own? She said she saw no reason why we couldn’t all go on living together, even if David and I were to have a child. She’d gladly support us all if she had to, she said. And when I expressed doubts she said, “Don’t be so conventional. Who says we have to live like everyone else?”

Once, on St. Mark’s Place, she pointed out two eccentric-looking women, one middle-aged, the other elderly, both dressed like gypsies and with long, flowing gray hair: “Old bohemians.” And she added, jokingly, “Us in thirty years.”

More than thirty years have passed, and she is dead, and there is no bohemia anymore.

Why was I going to a writers’ colony, anyway? She herself would never do that. If she was going to hole up and work for a spell, let it be in a hotel. She’d done that a couple of times and loved it, ordering sandwiches and coffee from room service and working feverishly. But to be secluded in some rural retreat just sounded grim. And what sort of inspiration was to be found in the country? Had I never read Plato? (Socrates to Phaedrus: “I’m a lover of learning, and trees and open country won’t teach me anything.”) I never knew anyone more appreciative than she was of the beautiful in art and in human physical appearance—“I’m a beauty freak” was something she said all the time—and yet I never knew anyone less moved by the beauties of nature. Why would anyone want to leave exciting Manhattan for a month in the woods? When I said I could easily imagine moving to the country, not then but when I was older, she was appalled. “That sounds like retiring.” The very word made her ill.

From time to time, because her parents lived there, she’d have to fly to Hawaii. When I said I was dying to visit America’s most beautiful state, she was baffled. “But it’s totally boring.” Curiosity was a supreme virtue in her book, and she herself was endlessly curious—but not about the natural world. Living on Riverside Drive, she sometimes spoke admiringly of the view, especially the fine sunsets, but I never knew her to cross the street to go to Riverside Park.

Once, I showed her a story I was working on in which a dragonfly appeared. “What’s that? Something you made up?” When I started to describe what a dragonfly was, she cut me off. “Never mind.” It wasn’t important; it was boring.

Boring, like servile, was one of her favorite words. Another was exemplary. Also, serious. “You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books.” She meant not only what books they had on their shelves, but how the books were arranged. At that time—the late seventies—she had about six thousand books, perhaps a third of the number she would eventually own. Because of her, I arranged my books by subject and in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I wanted to be serious.

“It is harder for a woman,” she acknowledged. Meaning: to be serious, to take herself seriously, to get others to take her seriously. She had put her foot down while still a child. Let gender get in her way? Not on your life! But most women were too timid. Most women were afraid to assert themselves, afraid of looking too smart, too ambitious, too confident. They were afraid of being unladylike. They did not want to be seen as hard or cold or self-centered or arrogant. They were afraid of looking masculine. Rule number one was to get over all that.

Here is one of my favorite Susan Sontag stories.

It was sometime in the early sixties, when she’d just become a Farrar, Straus and Giroux author, and she was invited to a dinner party at her publisher’s Upper-East-Side townhouse. Back then, it was the custom chez Straus for the guests to separate after dinner, the men repairing to one room, the women to another. For a moment Susan was puzzled. Then it hit her. Without a word to the hostess, she stalked off to join the men. Dorothea Straus told the story gleefully years later. “And that was that! Susan broke the tradition, and we never split up after dinner again.”

She was certainly not afraid of looking masculine. And she was impatient with other women for not being more like her, for not being able to leave the women’s room and go join the men.

She always wore pants (usually jeans) and low-heeled shoes (usually sneakers), and she refused to carry a purse. The attachment of women to purses perplexed her. She made fun of me for taking mine everywhere. Where had women gotten the idea they’d be lost without one? Men didn’t carry purses, hadn’t I noticed? Why did women burden themselves? Why not instead always wear clothes with pockets large enough to hold keys, wallet, and cigarettes, as men did?

She said, “Here’s a big difference between you and me. You wear makeup and you dress in a certain way that’s meant to draw attention and help people find you attractive. But I won’t do anything to draw attention to my looks. If someone wants to, they can take a closer look and maybe they’ll discover I’m attractive. But I’m not going to do anything to help them.” Mine was the typical female way, hers was the way of most men.

No makeup, but she dyed her hair. And she wore cologne. Men’s cologne: Dior Homme.

She was a great admirer of Elizabeth Hardwick’s work, but she thought Hardwick was yet another woman fettered by her femininity (“I have always, all of my life, been looking for help from a man,” Hardwick wrote), in this case a particularly pungent Southern brand of it. (On the other hand, in a conversation about women writers I once had with Hardwick, when I mentioned Susan she said, “She’s not really a woman.”)

She thought Virginia Woolf was a genius, but to hold her above all other literary idols as I did then struck Susan as callow; predictable. Besides, something about Woolf—something I think had everything to do with Woolf’s mental and physical illnesses (her weaknesses, in other words)—made Susan squeamish. The first volume of Woolf’s letters had recently come out, and Susan said she could not read them. She was put off by the many intimate letters to Woolf’s beloved older friend, Violet Dickinson, the silly endearments and girlish prattle, and Woolf’s habit of presenting herself as a cute little animal. Susan hated childish language of any kind and always boasted that she had never spoken baby talk with her son when he was little.

She was suspicious of women with menstrual complaints. She herself had always taken her periods in stride, and she thought that a lot of women must be exaggerating the inconveniences and discomforts of theirs. Or they were buying into old myths about the delicacy and vulnerability of the female body. In my case, diagnosis was simple: “You’re neurasthenic.” In fact, she suspected that many people exaggerated or overreacted to both physical and emotional pain, an attitude that no doubt owed much to her having had cancer and having stoically withstood radical surgery and chemotherapy.

Seeing me curled up in her son’s lap, she fixed me with a cool I’ve-got-your-number look and lisped mockingly, “The little girl and her big man.”

She was a feminist, but she was often critical of her feminist sisters and of much of the rhetoric of feminism for being naive, sentimental, and anti-intellectual. And she could be hostile to those who complained about being underrepresented in the arts or banned from the canon, ungently reminding them that the canon (or art, or genius, or talent, or literature) was not an equal opportunity employer.

She was a feminist who found most women wanting. There was a certain friend she saw regularly, a brilliant man whom she loved to hear talk and whom, though he was married, she usually saw alone. Those times when his wife did come along were inevitably disappointing. With his wife there, Susan complained, the conversation of this brilliant and intellectually stimulating man somehow became boring.

She was exasperated to find that the company of even very intelligent women was usually not as interesting as that of intelligent men.


Over the years, I have met or learned about a surprising number of people who said it was reading Susan Sontag when they were young that had made them want to be writers. Although this was not true of me, her influence on how I think and write has been profound. By the time I got to know her I was already out of school, but I’d been a mostly indifferent, highly distracted student, and the gaps in my knowledge were huge. Though she hadn’t grown up in New York, she was far more of a New Yorker than I, who’d always lived there, and to the city’s cultural life you could have no better guide. Small wonder I considered meeting her one of the luckiest strokes of my life. It’s quite possible that, in time, I’d have discovered on my own writers like John Berger and Walter Benjamin and E. M. Cioran and Simone Weil. But the fact remains, I learned about them first from her. Though I’m sure she was often dismayed to hear what I hadn’t read, how much I didn’t know, she did not make me feel ashamed. Among other things, she understood what it was like to come from a background where there were few books and no intellectual spirit or guidance; she had come from such a background herself. She said, “You and I didn’t have what David’s been able to take for granted from birth.”

She was a natural mentor. You could not live with her and avoid being mentored, was the delightful truth of it. Even someone who met her only once was likely to go away with a reading list. She was naturally didactic and moralistic; she wanted to be an influence, a model, exemplary. She wanted to improve the minds and refine the tastes of other people, to tell people things they didn’t know (in some cases, things they didn’t even want to know but that she insisted they damn well ought to). But if educating others was an obligation, it was also loads of fun. She was the opposite of Thomas Bernhard’s comic “possessive thinker,” who feeds on the fantasy that every book or painting or piece of music he loves has been created solely for and belongs solely to him and whose “art selfishness” makes the thought of anyone else enjoying or appreciating the works of genius he reveres intolerable. She wanted her passions to be shared by all, and to respond with equal intensity to any work she loved was to give her one of her biggest pleasures.

Some of her enthusiasms mystified me. As we sat in the Upper West Side’s New Yorker revival house (oh vanished temples of my youth), sharing a giant chocolate bar, I kept wondering why she’d wanted to see a double feature of old Katherine Hepburn movies, both of which she said she’d already seen more than twenty times. Of course, she was besotted (another favorite word) with moviegoing—in the way only someone who never watches television can be, perhaps. (We know this now: if one size screen doesn’t addict you, another one will.) We went to the movies all the time. Ozu, Kurosawa, Godard, Bresson, Resnais—each of these names is linked in my mind with her own. It was with her that I first learned how much more exciting a movie is when watched from a seat close up to the screen. Because of her I still always sit in the front of the theater, I still resist watching any movie on television, and have never been able to bring myself to rent movie videos or DVDs.

Among living American writers, she admired, besides Hardwick, Donald Barthelme, William Gass, Leonard Michaels, Grace Paley. But she had no more use for most contemporary American fiction than she did for most contemporary American film. In her view, the last first-rate American novel had been Light in August, by Faulkner (a writer she respected but did not love). Of course Philip Roth and John Updike were good writers, but she could summon no enthusiasm for the things they wrote about. Later, she would not find the influence of Raymond Carver on American fiction something to cheer. It wasn’t at all that she was against minimalism, she said; she just couldn’t be thrilled about a writer “who writes the same way he talks.”

What thrilled her instead was the work of certain Europeans, for example Italo Calvino, Bohumil Hrabal, Peter Handke, Stanislaw Lem. They, along with Latin American writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, were creating far more daring and original work than her less ambitious fellow Americans. She liked to describe all highly inventive, form- or genre-bending writing as science fiction, in contrast to banal contemporary American realism. It was this kind of literature she thought a fiction writer should aspire to, and that she believed would continue to matter.

She was a natural mentor . . . who hated teaching. Teach as little as possible, she said. Best not to teach at all. She said, “I saw the best writers of my generation destroyed by teaching.” She said the life of the writer and the life of the academic would always be at odds. She liked to refer to herself as a self-defrocked academic. She was even prouder to call herself self-created. I never had a mentor, she said. Though she must have learned something while married to her University of Chicago professor, sociologist and cultural critic Philip Rieff, a marriage that began when she was a sophomore and he was twenty-eight and ended when she left him seven years later. And she’d had other professors, among them Leo Strauss and Kenneth Burke, whom she remembered as extraordinary teachers and for whom she had no end of praise. But however else these men might have inspired her, it was not to be a great teacher herself.

Like many other writers, she equated teaching with failure. Besides, she had never wanted to be anyone’s employee. The worst part of teaching was that it was, inescapably, a job, and for her to take any job was humiliating. But then, she also found the idea of borrowing a book from the library instead of buying her own copy humiliating. Taking public transportation instead of a cab was deeply humiliating. Divaism? She seemed to think any self-respecting person would understand and feel as she did.

I found it strange that there was this one part of her life—the teaching she did, either before or after I met her—that she never talked about. About being a student, she talked a lot. In fact, I’d never known anyone to speak with such reverence about his or her own student days. It gave her a special glow to talk about that time, making me think it must have been the happiest of her life. She said the University of Chicago had made her the mind she was; it was there that she’d learned, if not how to write, how to read closely and how to think critically. She still cherished her course notebooks from those days.

Now it occurs to me that at least some of her resistance to teaching might have had to do with her passion for being a student. She had the habits and the aura of a student all her life. She was also, all but physically, always young. People close to her often compared her to a child (her inability to be alone; her undiminishable capacity for wonder; her being without health insurance in her forties, when she got cancer, even though health insurance was easily affordable in those days). David and I joked that she was our enfant terrible. (Once, when she was struggling to finish an essay, angry that we weren’t being supportive enough, she said, “If you won’t do it for me, at least you could do it for Western culture.”) My enduring image of her fits exactly that of a student, a fanatical one: staying up all night, surrounded by piles of books and papers, speeding, chain-smoking, reading, note taking, pounding the typewriter, driven, competitive. She would write that A-plus essay. She would go to the head of the class.

Even her apartment—strictly anti-bourgeois, unapologetically ungemütlich—evoked student life. Its main feature was the growing number of books, but they were mostly paperbacks, and the shelves were cheap pine board. Furniture was sparse, there were no curtains or rugs, and the kitchen had few supplies. No cooking was done there, unless it was by some visitor. No entertaining, not even on holidays. If there was a guest, he or she would be offered a cup of Café Bustelo (never any kind of alcohol) or might be invited to join us for a frozen dinner or a bowl of canned soup. People visiting for the first time were clearly surprised to find the celebrated middle-aged writer living like a grad student. (Everything changes. In her mid-fifties she would say: “I realized I was working just as hard, if not harder, than everyone I knew, and making less money than any of them.” And so she transformed that part of her life. But the time I’m talking about was before—before the grand Chelsea penthouse, the enormous library, the rare editions, the art collection, the designer clothes, the country house, the personal assistant, the housekeeper, the personal chef. And one day when I was around the same age she had been when we met, she shook her head at me and said, “What are you planning to do, live like a grad student the rest of your life?”)

Whenever some university made her an offer she knew she shouldn’t refuse, she was torn. Often she turned it down even though she needed money, and then she would congratulate herself. She was amazed at those who made a much better living from writing than she did yet were still tempted by tenure. She was outraged to hear other writers complain, as many often did, about how their teaching made them miserable because it interfered with their writing. In general, she had contempt for people who didn’t do what they truly wanted to do. She believed that most people, unless they are very poor, make their own lives, and, to her, security over freedom was a deplorable choice. It was servile.

She believed that, in our culture, at least, people were much freer than they thought they were and had more options than they seemed willing to acknowledge. She also believed that how other people treated you was, if not wholly, mostly within your control, and she was always after me to take that control. Stop letting people bully you, she would bully me.

Which brings me to another favorite story.

She said, “I know you won’t believe this, but when I was your age I was a lot more like you than like I am today. And I can prove it!” It turned out the playwright Maria Irene Fornes was coming to visit that day. Fornes and Susan had been lovers almost twenty years earlier, after Susan had divorced her husband and moved to New York. When Fornes arrived, as soon as she’d introduced us, Susan said, “Tell Sigrid what I was like when you met me. Go on, go on!”

“She was an idiot,” Fornes said.

When she’d stopped laughing Susan said to me, “The point I was trying to make is that there’s hope for you, too.”


When, recently, I see that Javier Marías has said that the worst thing a writer can do is to take himself or his work too seriously, I think I understand. I think I even agree with him. I think if I had thought this way myself when I was young, my life could have been happier. I might even have turned out to be a better writer. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to have had as an early model someone who held such an exalted, unironic view of the writer’s vocation. (“And you must think of it as a vocation. Never as a career.”)

Virginia Woolf lived as if literature were a religion and she one of its priests. Susan made me think of the antiquated hyperbole of Thomas Carlyle: the writer as hero. There could be no nobler pursuit, no greater adventure, no more rewarding quest. And she shared Woolf’s worship of books, her idea of heaven as eternal reading.

She said, “Pay no attention to these writers who claim you can’t be a serious writer and a voracious reader at the same time.” (Two such writers, I recall, were V. S. Naipaul and Norman Mailer.) After all, what mattered was the life of the mind, and for that life to be lived fully, reading was the necessity. Aiming for a book a day was not too high (though something I myself could not achieve). Because of her, I began reading too fast.

Because of her I began writing my name in each new book I acquired. I began clipping articles from newspapers and magazines and filing them in various books. Like her, I always read with a pencil in hand (never a pen), for underlining.

In school, I had studied with Elizabeth Hardwick, and though she was at times encouraging I always got the feeling from her that if I gave myself over completely to the writer’s life I would find more unhappiness than fulfillment. For years afterward, whenever I spoke to her I noticed she almost always asked about my writing only after she’d asked about my love life. (“Do you still have that nice young man?”) She used to tell her Barnard students that you had to be really bored with life to become a writer. Somehow I don’t believe she thought this was true for men.

On the other hand, with Susan, I felt as if I were being given permission to devote myself to these two vocations—reading and writing—that were so often difficult to justify. And it was clear that, no matter how hard or frustrating or daunting it was—and no matter how much like a long punishment writing a book could be—she would not have chosen any other way; she would not have wanted any other life than the life she had.

“You have to care about every comma.”

“A writer’s standards can’t ever possibly be too high.”

“Never worry about being obsessive. I like obsessive people. Obsessive people make great art.”

To read a whole shelf of books to research one twenty-page essay, to spend months writing and rewriting, going through one entire ream of typing paper before those twenty pages could be called done—for the serious writer this was, of course, normal. Satisfaction? “I always think everything I write is shit,” she said. But of course, you didn’t do it to feel good about yourself. You didn’t do it for your own enjoyment (unlike reading), or for catharsis, or to express yourself, or to please some particular audience. You did it for literature, she said. And there was nothing wrong with never being satisfied with what you did.

“The question you have to ask yourself is whether what you’re writing is necessary.” I didn’t know about this. Necessary? That way, I thought, lies writer’s block.

Because of her I resisted switching from typewriter to word processor. (“You want to slow down, not speed up. The last thing you want is something that’s going to make writing easier.”)

One way in which she considered herself a terrible model was in her work habits. She had no discipline, she said. She could not steel herself to write every day, as everyone knew was best. But it was not so much lack of discipline as a hunger to do many other things besides write. She wanted to travel a lot and go out every night—and to me the most fitting of all the things that were said upon her death was by Hardwick: “In the end, nothing is more touching to the emotions than to think of her own loss of evenings at ‘happenings,’ at dance recitals, the opera, movies.”

Lincoln Center. For the rest of my life, I think, I will never hear the orchestra tuning up or watch the chandeliers rise toward the ceiling of the opera house without remembering her.

To get herself to work, she had to clear out big chunks of time during which she would do nothing else. She would take speed and work around the clock, never leaving the apartment, rarely leaving her desk. We’d go to sleep to the sound of her typing and wake up to the sound of her typing. This could go on for weeks. And though she often said she wished she could work in a less self-destructive way, she believed it was only after going at it full throttle for many hours that your mind really started to click and you’d come up with your best ideas.

She said a writer should never pay attention to reviews, good or bad. “In fact, you’ll see, the good ones will often make you feel even worse than the bad ones.” Besides, she said, people are sheep. If one person says something’s good, the next person says it’s good, and so on. “And if I say something’s good, everyone says it’s good.”

She said, “Don’t be afraid to steal. I steal from other writers all the time.” And she could point to no few instances of writers stealing from her.

She said, “Beware of ghettoization. Resist the pressure to think of yourself as a woman writer.” And, “Resist the temptation to think of yourself as a victim.”

She was a natural mentor, but she was not maternal. Though she always said her biggest regret was not having had more children, I found it almost impossible to imagine her nursing, or tending to an infant or a small child. I could more easily imagine her digging ditches or break dancing or milking a cow. In fact, she told me she never really wanted her son to think of her as his mother. “I’d rather he see me as—oh, I don’t know, his goofy big sister.” From the time she knew she was pregnant till the day she went into labor, she never saw a doctor. “I didn’t know you were supposed to.” Endlessly curious; at least one book a day—but not one book about pregnancy or child care, she said. She was the opposite of women like Michelle Obama: she was a mother last.

She liked to tell a story about the time a group of other young mothers approached her to express concern about her parenting, suggesting she needed guidance. It wasn’t that they were busybodies, she said. They were just unliberated fifties women stuck with conventional ideas of what a proper woman, wife, and mother should be. I asked her if they had made her feel guilty, and she replied emphatically no. She had never felt any guilt about the kind of mother she was. “Not one iota.”

First I moved out, then David and I broke up, and not long after that David got a place of his own. Over the next few years, a period when she was often depressed, I had more contact with her than I had with him, though it never amounted to much. Always she complained of being lonely, of feeling rejected; abandoned. Sometimes she wept. She had gotten it into her head that everything she ever did in her life was first of all to win David’s love and respect. As if he were the parent and she the child.

While I was still in school, at Columbia, I had taken a course in Modern British Literature with Edward Said. Whenever I mentioned him Susan would tease. “Sounds like you’ve got a crush.” (Though Susan had probably met Said by this time, the two had not yet become friends.) There was truth to this. A lot of students were smitten with brilliant, handsome young Professor Said.

And then, somehow—I can’t remember the details except that I had nothing to do with them—Professor Said was coming to visit!

I have never understood what happened that day. I remember that the four of us were in the living room, where there was only one comfortable chair. I remember that Said sat in that chair without taking off his coat and that he had brought an umbrella, which he placed on the floor beside the chair. And the whole time, he kept reaching down to pick up the umbrella and then immediately put it down on the floor again.

I didn’t say anything, David didn’t say anything, and though Susan did her best to engage him, Said didn’t say much of anything, either. He sat there in his coat, nervously playing with the umbrella and not saying much, and when he did say something it was mumbled. He sat in the one comfortable chair, the only comfortable chair in the whole apartment, looking as uncomfortable as if he were sitting on nails, picking up the umbrella and putting it down again, nodding at whatever Susan said but obviously too distracted to be really listening. Of what was discussed all I can recall is who was and who wasn’t still on the faculty at Columbia where, years before, Susan had taught, too. The entire visit, though it did not last long, was excruciating, and it was a great relief when he was gone.

And after he was gone Susan came to find me. “Are you all right?” I shrugged. “Look,” she said. “I have no idea what that was all about, but I do know how you feel and I’m sorry.” What was she talking about? “I know what it’s like when you admire someone and then you see them in an unflattering light. I know it can be very painful.”

We sat together for a while, smoking and talking. How many hours we used to spend like that, smoking and talking. To me it was unfathomable: the busiest, most productive person I knew, who somehow always had time for a long conversation.

“But that’s what happens,” she said. “You have to be prepared for that.” It had happened to her a lot, she said. Once she started meeting writers and artists, it happened over and over. “I’d be so thrilled about meeting these people—my heroes! my idols!” And over and over she would feel let down or even betrayed. And she was so disillusioned that she’d end up regretting having met them, because now she couldn’t worship them or their work anymore, at least not in the same pure way.

One of her favorite books was Balzac’s Lost Illusions, which she insisted I must read at once.

One of her favorite films was Tokyo Story. “I try to go see it once a year.” (And in those days, if you lived in Manhattan, this could be done.)

She was shocked when I didn’t love it. (I am ashamed to say, that first time, I found Ozu’s masterpiece too slow.)

“But didn’t you get it? What about the part, after the mother’s funeral”—and she recited an exchange that takes place between the youngest daughter and the daughter-in-law. “Oh my god!” She clutched her throat. “Didn’t that make you weep?”

What a dumb clod I must have seemed to her. I thought of lying just to protect her. But then she waved her hand and said, “Oh, it’s just because you’re too young. Years from now you’ll see it again, and then you’ll understand.” Confident.

Actually, it didn’t take years. And I didn’t have to see the movie again.

Kyoko: Isn’t life disappointing?

Noriko: Yes, it is.

Sigrid Nunez has published six novels: A Feather on the Breath of God, Naked Sleeper, Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, For Rouenna, The Last of Her Kind, and Salvation City. Her most recent book is Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. Her work has also appeared in several anthologies, including three Pushcart Prize volumes and four anthologies of Asian-American literature. In February, 2012, she will be Writer-in-Residence at Vassar College.

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