Friday, March 04, 2011

Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes

Mentor is the second book recommended by my good friend, Margaret Hawkins, author of A Year of Cats and Dogs and How to Avoid a Natural Disaster, both reviewed here last year. Grimes’ memoir must be on the shelf of anyone interested in the writing process or writing while trying to hold body and soul together. Tom had an amazingly supportive partner, Jody – that makes all the difference in the world. I can personally attest to the value of spousal support.

In 1988, Tom Grimes wrote 20 hours a week and held down a job as a waiter in a Florida restaurant. A fleeting encounter with Frank Conroy, published novelist and director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, led Tom to apply to Iowa. He was accepted and packed up his family and moved. The memoir revolves around the relationship Tom developed with Frank. He also reveals, in great detail, the agonies, joys, triumphs, and disappointments of the writing life.

The Amazing thing about this book involves an incredible number of passages that reflect closely on my own reading and writing life. For example, he describes his first class with Frank, who began by writing on the board, “meaning, sense, and clarity,” then said, “‘If you don’t have these you don’t have a reader’” (25). Another, “the world is chaos and an artful novel satisfies our human desire for order, or … the novel excavates meaning from the rubble of incomprehension” (55). Frank discusses the “impostor syndrome” with Tom. “You can’t believe good things are happening to you and you’re worried someone will find you’re a fake…Don’t worry, it’ll pass” (121). I have said these, and many other things, to my creative writing classes.

At times, Tom displays a seemingly inexplicable lack of confidence in his writing. But a writer knows and understands. I can relate to that feeling. Agonizing over a poem or a story for hours or days or months only to see someone chop it to bits, or worse, dismiss it out of hand, can have a devastating effect on a writer. Grimes gives the reader a boost and a reminder that beginning writers can never give up – if they are serious about their art.

Only one chapter failed to hold my attention. Chapter Eleven, which relates the story of a play Tom was writing, is written as play dialogue. Beside this minor lapse, I thoroughly enjoyed every other page. This book goes on my reading list for my own creative writing students. 4-3/4 stars

--Chiron, 3/3/11

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