Just finished one of the best writer-memoirs I’ve ever read

coverWas recommended Tom Grimes’ Mentor by…some article. Read it in less than a day. The book is amazing. Grimes was a waiter who got into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and formed a close friendship with workshop director Frank Conroy (whose most famous book is the memoir Stop Time). The book is an extremely perceptive and honest look at what it means to be a writer of promise.

When Conroy accepts Grimes to the workshop, he calls up the man on the phone and tells him that his novel-in-progress (the one he used as an application writing sample) is brilliant and that it demands to be written. And then he tells Grimes that he’s given him the workshop’s top fellowship.

When Grimes arrives, he finds that everyone knows who he is: Conroy has been talking him up.

Subsequently, we’re taken through the angst of trying to write that novel and then the subsequent anxiety of failing to live up to his early progress. At this point, Mentor, a memoir of Grimes failure as a writer, might very well be his most famous book.

I don’t normally praise books for their writing, but I will level such praise at this one. The writing is extremely inventive and precise. He knows how to describe things in a sparing and evocative way. When he writes about his struggles to write a sentence, you believe it, because every sentence that you’re reading has obvious been labored over.

Amongst other things, the book is also a look at how literary reputations are made (or unmade) and on the limitations of hype. Professor Conroy does everything in his power to rejuvenate Grimes’ career, but he’s just not able to do it. The workings of the literary world are mysterious. No one is able to say why one book fails and another book succeeds.

Conroy’s function in the memoir is twofold: one, he provides a living, breathing example of Grimes’ hopes for himself. The fact that Conroy believes so strongly in him leads us to also believe that Grimes will achieve something great. And when he doesn’t, we also live out that disappointment through the disappointment of his father figure. Conroy is never disappointed with Grimes, mind you…he’s just disappointed with a world that’d treat Grimes that way.

Conroy also serves as a living counterpoint to Grimes, because Conroy also never managed to produce another work that lived up to the expectations set by his first book. Nonetheless, Conroy perseveres and achieves some measure of…well…in the end, we know that Conroy has lived a live that he can be proud of.

And we suspect that Grimes has managed to do the same.

Highly recommend this book to any writer. I think it’s been years since I’ve read a book on writing that I’ve loved as much.

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