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Intersection of Life and Faith

Finding a Mentor, and More

  • Chad Estes TheFish.com Contributing Writer
  • 2010 17 Aug
Finding a <i>Mentor</i>, and More

Author:  Tom Grimes
Title:  Mentor:  A Memoir
Publisher:  Tin House Books 

When Tom Grimes first sought out Frank Conroy the experience left him feeling completely rejected. Tom wanted to be a career writer and had applied to the acclaimed Iowa Writers' Workshop, a two-year residence program at the University of Iowa. While waiting for a response from the school, and the other three graduate programs he applied to, Tom was elated to see that Conroy, the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, was coming to Key West, Florida (where Tom was a waiter at a local restaurant) for a seminar filled with well-known authors. Tom prepared himself to meet one of his literary heroes and hopefully get a feel for his chances in the Iowa program that only accepts two dozen students a year. He maneuvered his way into Conroy's path in order to ask him a few questions. All he got out was, "I've applied to the Writers' Workshop," when Conroy cut him off.

"You and eight hundred others."

Tom never got the chance to ask him the questions he had prepared. He was so discouraged that he angrily raced home, tore Conroy's well-read (and up to that point well-loved) book, Stop-Time, from his shelves and ripped its pages to shreds all the while cursing Conroy's name.

It was hardly the last time, in the fickle world of writing, that Tom Grimes would be undone by the emotions surrounding rejection. It was, however, the very last time he ever experienced negativity from Frank Conroy. A few weeks later, after receiving "No thank you" letters from two of the programs he'd applied to, Tom was unprepared for the phone call he received from Conroy himself. The author praised Tom's writing, gave him a scholarship to the workshop, and breathed life-saving oxygen onto the dying embers of Tom's creative soul.

Mentor: A Memoir is the account that Grimes recently published about the life-long relationship that developed between himself and Conroy. Though Grimes' purpose for moving to Iowa was to hone his craft and finish his novel, his real need was for someone to believe in him. When Conroy's estimation of the success of the younger man's novel, Season's End, wasn't fully realized, it helped Grimes understand the real value of his experience. "I arrived a potential success. I departed a proven failure. Only that isn't the meaningful story. I arrived fatherless; I departed a son."

Besides being an intriguing study about a professor and a prized student, Mentor is also very much a tribute to Frank Conroy. Though Grimes doesn't wax eloquent and make Conroy out to be a literary god (or even teacher, for that matter), he writes with honest words and with great respect. His approach at the end of the book to submit his memories to Conroy's family for their feedback, as well as the eulogy he writes for Conroy's funeral, is very moving.

Mentor also serves as a revealing window into the life of a writer, including the ups and downs of the creative process, surviving defeats as well as the dreams that come true, and the interworking of editors, publishers, and literary politics. Though this is not necessarily a book on the topic of writing, it has more than enough gems of wisdom, as well as being beautifully written itself, to inspire those who are inclined to put their life and their imaginations down in words.

**This review first published on August 17, 2010.

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