by Donna George Storey
Back in 1983, when I’d just finished writing a novella as part of my creative writing certificate in college, my older sister (who knows everything and more specifically everything I should do to be a true success in life) told me with confidence that what I now needed to make real progress in my writing was a mentor.
My resistance to the idea was practical rather than philosophical. There wasn’t anyone around who seemed at all interested in becoming my mentor. My thesis adviser, Stephen Koch, was a pleasant enough fellow. He’d been assigned six of us creative writing seniors to shepherd through a year of independent literary effort, but he didn’t show any desire to go above and beyond his professional duty, at least as far as I was concerned. I assumed that I wasn’t talented or special enough to merit a mentor. Convinced I had nothing interesting to say, I stopped writing for thirteen years after graduation. When I took it up again, I relied on the help of a writing group of peers to improve my craft (see Garce’s very useful post on peer critiques, which are indeed invaluable to a writer).
Still, I was mildly envious whenever I heard of anyone with the good luck to connect with a mentor. It seemed the easiest way to realize the greatest dream of every aspiring writer—the literary establishment’s crown of “exciting new American voice,” which meant of course that one would be worshipped unconditionally and live happily ever after.
I am envious no longer.
That’s because I just finished reading Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes. In the spring of 1989, thirty-two-year-old Grimes was your typical romantic starving artist, working as a waiter in Key West, when he got a phone call from Frank Conroy, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Conroy adored the novel excerpt Grimes had sent with his application and said he would do anything to entice him to join the program. Not that Grimes needed enticement. All the other programs he’d applied to, including his local safety school, had rejected him flat.
When he arrived in Iowa, Grimes found that he was already famous as the “guy who was writing the baseball novel.” Conroy had raved about it to anyone who would listen, although it meant most students kept their distance from the rising literary genius. The first day of class, Conroy invited Grimes to his office and offered to introduce him to his agent, New York’s best, Candida Donadio, with the implication that Donadio would snap him up (ah, how often have aspiring writers emailed me asking me to introduce them to my agent—alas, I have none). Grimes asked for a rain check, but he did come to rely on Conroy’s support and favor in class and out, for example, accepting a chance to observe the Mets’ spring training as research for his novel thanks to Conroy’s friendship with the manager. When the long-awaited baseball novel was finished, Donadio passed the project to her assistant, but the novel received bids from every major literary publisher in New York. Grimes’ novel had gone to auction—every writer’s wet dream.
Unfortunately, any published writer of modest experience will recognize the cruel realities that soon brought the dream crashing back to earth. Grimes’ agent pressured him to make a decision on his publishing house in fifteen minutes on a Friday afternoon to be polite to the editors—unfortunately Conroy was not available to give his mentorly advice at the time, which doubtless would have been to resist the agent’s pressure and think things through. Grimes went with the editor who seemed most genuinely enthusiastic about his book, not a bad choice in any case, but a better one still because it was clear that some of the other editors were more excited about Conroy’s sponsorship than the work itself.
Predictably, the enthusiastic editor soon changed houses and the next editor assigned to the book also left during a merger. The orphaned book languished, got tepid reviews and didn’t even rate a paperback edition. The world apparently did not share Conroy’s opinion of Grimes’ talent—or was it just bad luck and bad marketing? Determined to soldier on, Grimes had a standing offer for his next book from one of the other prestigious publishers he’d turned down but the man died before the novel was ready. That book, too, was published with disappointing results. In the meantime, Grimes was hired to direct Texas State University’s creative writing program, again with strong recommendation from Conroy. Despite his initial reluctance to follow his mentor on this path, the program flourished and now hires some of America’s most acclaimed writers like Tim O’Brien (although Grimes still has to shore up O’Brien’s confidence at times by reminding him he wrote one of America’s greatest books, The Things They Carried, which makes me wonder if any writer is truly at peace with his achievement). But in spite of those impressive credentials, Grimes feels like a failure as a writer and is much humbled by his experiences since he arrived full of hope at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Yet the literary establishment is ever full of irony. Denied his dream of a starred Publisher’s Weekly review for his first three novels, Grimes’ memoir about his relationship with Conroy finally earned him that coveted honor.
Although he probbly still isn’t living happily ever after. Just a hunch.
So what does this have to do with erotica writers?
Well, while my illusions about my life as a writer have been eroding for many years now, Mentor reminded me of the dangers of putting ambition and a belief in the importance of external validation before the pleasures and challenges of the writing itself. Apparently I still need to be reminded—not because I believe I will ever become the Chosen One, America’s first woman writer to be lauded as the greatest writer of our time—but because I still nurtured the fantasy that someone else might attain that lofty position with ease and grace due to her transcendent talent and possibly the help of a devoted mentor. Grimes also reminded me that a mentor serves his own needs as much as his protege’s. In spite of the best intentions, a mentor’s attention might well become a burden and a hindrance to the younger writer’s development. Lucky breaks and grand successes always come with a cost.
Besides, for all of us who do not have a mentor, we still have a wonderful option. We can immerse ourselves in the magic of telling a good story and explore all the ways the English language can help us in our cause just by sitting down at our computers and giving our imaginations free rein. With this simple act, we can live a dream no person or random twist of fate can destroy.
Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com