Writer? Here’s Your Mentor

Imagine you’re chosen from the stack of 800 Iowa Workshop applicants and Frank Conroy calls to say, “I’ll see you in August!”  (adding, “I never call anyone.”)  Imagine you show up in August and, from the first day, Frank seems to think your book, the one you’ll be working on in his Workshop, is brilliant.  Imagine you finish said book and 5 publishing houses bid on it, only to realize you’ve failed.

Failed? Well, yes.

“Writers always look toward the future.  In a sense, we have no past, only whatever time we have remaining to write the perfect book to mask our emptiness — or my emptiness, anyway — the book that won’t defeat us, the book we’d like to be remembered by, if we’re remembered at all.” (p. 167)

Tom Grimes’s latest book is not one of those memoirs where you admire the richness of the language so much as the raw truth-telling.  The kind of raw that breaks your heart.  I won’t say more, as I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but I will say this:  after I finished reading MENTOR yesterday afternoon, I went back and read the New York Times Review from August 2010 and thought Dwight Garner’s review — petty, short, and off-the-mark — and was stunned.  Did we read the same book, Mr. Garner and me?  Forget where Mr. Garner says, “Don’t give this forthright and bewildered book to the would-be writer in your life.  It might make him or her climb a tall tree and leap from it.”  It made me want to climb up even higher in the tree and work harder.  Go out and read it as fast as you can.  It’s the most honest, inspirational story about the writing life that I’ve read in a long, long time.

16 thoughts on “Writer? Here’s Your Mentor

  1. lizisilver

    This post made me cry, Teri.
    The passage you selected is such an accurate, precise (finally!) description of the stone in my heart, my great hope, my great fear, all simultaneous. Writing is the only way I know out of getting defeated by CF. My heart feels heavy now, and yet, understood.

    Bought the book. Thank you.

    1. Teri Post author

      Lizi, I was on the verge of tears for the entire last third of this book. More than once I had to put it down and gather myself. I just felt like: He gets it. And he’s telling it like it really is.

  2. amyg

    shit, what is in the weather these days? this post made me cry too. seriously, i’m sitting here at the coffee shop trying to churn out a home feature article and thinking about how there’s always a deadline, always something i haven’t done yet, haven’t accomplished yet, and i’ve got this freakin’ book. it’s sitting in a stack of too many more books than i’m willing to admit i haven’t read yet even though they’re sitting (laying? lying? have lain? i can never keep that one straight) on my bookshelf.

    here’s my question to myself. why have i deciding that this writing thing, whatever it is, being published, earning my income, my career, why is it the one thing i have banked on? why is it so important to me? i feel a mess today. thanks for letting me whine.

    1. Teri Post author

      Exactly. Why do I think I can do this, why am I banking on it, trying so hard, banging my head against the concrete fence? Because it’s the best thing I know how to do, no matter how much I fail at it, and I have something to say.

      1. Averil Dean

        That’s it. I have something to say. The writing itself is only a vessel. Or gimmickry, perhaps. It’s the conveyance of an idea that matters, and that’s why we keep at it.

        I bought this book. Your review–and that fabulous interview–sold me. Thanks, Teri. What would we do without you?

    2. Deb

      Crazy, but I’m banking on it too. Writing my bottom off and hoping, hoping, hoping. I’ve given myself through the summer to hear anything back. If not, I have to start hitting the pavement.

  3. Jess

    That’s REALLY weird. I just finished reading this today, and save for some of the hero-worship sections that he could have cut out of the book, I loved it.

    1. Teri Post author

      Agreed, Jess. I could have also done with less baseball, but there you go. The book started a little slow for me, but finished fast. The last parts killed me.

  4. Oma

    Loved this post. I remember Conroy’s Stop-Time. This made me think of the quote, “Write what you know” by Mark Twain. But my favorite quote about writing, is Moliere’s, “Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends,then for money.” I am not implying anything here, I know it isn’t for money, I just felt like a little comic relief.

    1. Teri Post author

      Oma, comic relief is always welcome — and encouraged — on my oft-too-serious blog commentary. I thank you in advance for all goodness and light. 🙂

    1. MacDougal Street Baby

      Okay. Just read the first chapter and I’m hooked. I really love this “empty mind” coping mechanism he used for waiting on tables vs. waiting on acceptance letters. I could have used that kind of strategy back in the days of auditioning. Really really good stuff!

      1. Teri Post author

        I was fascinated by the order of events once he gets on the Iowa train — it’s crazy, and I was glad to get an insider’s view of how it really feels to be there. I’m also guessing he was much hated by his peers since Frank favored him so much. I was initially put off by the baseball detail that went into his book, but later realized its purpose: another kind of failure for America’s pastime mirroring his own.

        Get you Kleenex ready when you get to the last 1/3 of the book.

  5. erikamarks

    So I’m really enjoying Rosanne Cash’s memoir (maybe enjoying isn’t the word…but marvelling at, maybe? impressed with?) and the fact is I have not read a lot of memoirs, but man do I find myself sucked in when I do. I will be reading more, so thank you for this recommendation. I does help hugely to wear the shoes of another writer. On the good days, and especially on the tough ones.

  6. Laura

    Thanks so much. I can’t wait to read this!

    On a lighter note, I enjoyed the novel AFTER THE WORKSHOP by John McNally about an Iowa grad who no longer writes and now works as a media escort for the famous authors coming into town.

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