Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Mentor: a memoir by Tom Grimes

I mention with possibly annoying frequency that I believe in mentors. And I think it's important to have mentors who are just above you in terms of your goals and aspirations, ones who are way above you in terms of your goals and aspirations, and even those who are unattainable (generally because they are fictional heroes). Right now, and I mean this without any irony whatsoever, my two biggest role models seem to be Coach Taylor from "Friday Night Lights" and Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle from "Foyle's War" (they're so decent! so honorable! so handsome!...oh wait...). But more particularly as relates to this blog, I've had the privilege and pleasure of a wealth of mentors who model the writing life for me (including some of my peers, my undergraduate and graduate professors, and some people who are just inexplicably generous with me). But lots of my role models or mentors are people I've never met or people I've worked with but not known well. Lives I've read or heard about, who give me an idea of how things are done, what can go wrong, and how much conscious effort it takes to live a satisfying and dignified life. Recently I was surprisingly affected by Haruki Murakami's nonfiction book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is mostly about marathon running but also novel writing. What came across most powerfully was just how much physical effort it takes to achieve a career like Murakami's. A viewing of the documentary "The Rough South of Larry Brown" in my grad workshop last night also reinforced the benefits of applying a working class work ethic to writing (sample Brown quote: "Based on the first fifty stories that I wrote you would have to believe that I had no talent. You would have no choice.")

But I've realized, too, that if you're not in the right space to receive the information, witnessing other people's writing lives can be pretty devastating. I mean it's hard out there. And there are very few models that suggest otherwise. I once showed one of my favorite documentaries, "Stone Reader" to a grad workshop and at the end of it they looked as if I'd spent the hour and a half kicking them in the gut whilst shouting, "stay down! stay down!" For the record, I view "Stone Reader" as a movie about how vital reading is for some students viewed it as a movie about an Iowa grad who writes a huge book, gets a glowing NYT review, goes crazy and never writes again. Still, I recommend it. Anyway, Tom Grimes's memoir, Mentor, ostensibly about his relationship to the late Frank Conroy, then program director at Iowa, but really about Grimes's whole writing life, is a book that I valued for its honesty about writing, certain writing workshops, and about mentor relationships. For the record, Grimes views Conroy as a pivotal figure for him; I, on the other hand, came out of the book thinking, I will never ever teach like Frank Conroy, and nobody else should either. Because Conroy's approach, as I understood it through the lens of the book, was pretty much to encourage the one or two students he felt had natural talent and ignore the rest. And I don't mean that he made a particular effort to work with the talented students or their writing, rather he told them keep going, keep going and helped them get an agent etc in the end. But Grimes's story makes clear that what Conroy could do in terms of getting him an agent and getting the book out in the world had only a limited effect. The book didn't make money, didn't go to paperback, and Grimes in the end had a, possiby related, nervous breakdown (as did Conroy for unrelated reasons). I don't think nervous breakdowns are more inherent to writers than anybody else or that writing causes them, I'm just saying that having a mentor who can give you professional contacts isn't going to save your life. Nor will it make or break your career. In fact my view of mentoring is the opposite. I'm here to encourage everybody to work hard at their writing, to advise them on that writing, to advise them on how to make their own contacts...but I genuinely believe my students are better off if they find agents and publishers who respond to their work rather than ones who respond to me (not that I have that kind of sway anyway). But to get to the point, a review of this book suggested that apprentice writers might want to steer clear because so much of Grimes's experience is negative. But I think the more apprentice writers have a rational view of what writing can and can't do for them, what mentors can and can't do for them, and how to best define success as a writer...the better. So I recommend it. Plus it makes clear that Iowa's MFA program is great for some, but really shouldn't be the number one choice for all MFA applicants--its practices would not suit most of them. A timely message given those silly MFA rankings in Poets and Writers this month.

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