Mentor: A Memoir/Tom Grimes: Reflections

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I have the very dear and very thoughtful Leslie Pietrzyk (we met at Bread Loaf years ago, I caught a glimpse of her once, a fleeting moment, in Alexandria, and we are in touch again, thanks to Facebook) to thank for suggesting Mentor.  This is Tom Grimes's authoritative, unfancy, and bracingly honest memoir about his relationship with Frank Conroy, who was, of course, the author of the classic and important memoir Stop-Time and the long-time director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.  Grimes came into Conroy's orbit as a student—as a man waiting tables and writing at night, a man desperate to make a literary life.  Grimes becomes, quite quickly, someone more—someone Conroy can drink with, talk to, and selflessly encourage.  And oh, does Conroy selflessly encourage.  He urges Grimes on, he connects him to possibilities, he celebrates Grimes good moments and is there to buffer the bad.  Many writers—too many writers—focus only on themselves, their own work, their own fame.  Conroy clearly was not that sort, and Grimes's portrait of him is not just illuminating, it is restorative.

Yesterday in class we were talking about the difference between self-conscious writing and self-confident writing.  We were talking about the risks that get taken when certain lines are crossed.  Grimes crosses no lines here.  With remarkable quietude he parses his own career—his great ambitions, his successes, his failures, his coming-to-terms.  He sets this against and within the writers' workshop, giving us Conroy as teacher, friend, agent, and enthusiastic reader, reminding us of the power of memoirs that look beyond the author's immediate self.

"Frank read great writers without any fear," Grimes wrote, for Conroy's eulogy.  "He didn't worry about imitating them; he didn't worry about being overwhelmed by them.  Instead he took pleasure in them and learned from them, and by doing so he elevated reading to the level of art..."

Selflessness.  Enthusiasm.  A love for books, even those not one's own.  This is clear, unmuddied water.  This is spring, after winter.


Lilian Nattel said...

To be able to read other writers without envy or anxiety is a gift.

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