Mentor by Tom Grimes

Reviewed by Laura Roberts

Failure is a topic often discussed in hushed tones, something to be feared and avoided, and certainly not to be dwelt upon too deeply, lest it infect the rest of one’s life or work. Mentor, writer Tom Grimes’ memoir, bravely details both successes and failures, describing how Grimes hoped his second novel would bring him the kind of fame he hungered for, as well as the aftermath of a not-so-successful book that haunted him as a writer for 20 years.

Fear of failure is, as Mentor shows, no reason to stop writing. In fact, this fear can be a writer’s greatest asset, if he or she chooses to embrace the fear and continue moving forward.

To be honest, I had never heard of either Frank Conroy (the titular mentor) or Tom Grimes (his protégé) prior to reading this memoir, but I’m glad I have discovered them both through this beautifully-written book. Grimes shares his relationship with his mentor with a wider audience, helping us to see both the importance and the limitations of the mentoring process.

While Conroy praises Grimes’ writing, giving him special standing at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and offering friendship as well as writerly support, Grimes suffers from paranoia that his writing will never be good enough and does his best to downplay any signs of favoritism within the school. He longs for Conroy’s approval, but simultaneously fears these needs, worrying that Conroy is only being nice, that they aren’t truly friends, that he is perhaps bothering the older writer with his desire to please.

The fine line between friendship and idol worship is straddled, leapt over, further examined. Grimes details even embarrassing moments, such as his first meeting with Conroy (after which he returned to his apartment in Key West and destroyed Conroy’s novel in anger), to indicate his level of fandom, and shares his literary failures with the reader in an intimate, open way.

As someone with her own writing career and set of literary heroes to love and cherish, the book struck me as an honest and bittersweet take on the ever-evolving process of writing and immersing yourself in the literary life. It is the tale of someone who has met his Ideal Writer in the flesh, been disappointed, and rebounded to finally and equally love and respect the human being revealed behind the myth of The Famous Writer. If you haven’t experienced this yet, you undoubtedly will; even literary celebrities are only human.

Grimes has carved his own path and currently heads Texas State University’s MFA writing program—a program and a state he originally disparages in print, but comes to accept as his home. In homage to Conroy, it seems Grimes set out to create a program that can actually compete with Iowa’s monolithic program. With a literary heritage stemming from the purchase of writer Katherine Anne Porter’s childhood home, an Endowed Chair frequently occupied by Tim O’Brien, and a well-received literary journal (Front Porch), the program has shaped up nicely, especially for a small town in Texas like San Marcos (2008 population: 50,371).

For those of us that write, whether alone in our closets or in communities like the Iowa workshop, the book gives great insights into the academic side of writing and publishing. Though I have no intention of acquiring an MFA and further digging myself into a financial hole, I can certainly see the allure of these programs. Grimes simultaneously glamorizes and guts them, showing aspiring writers what the literary life is really like: blood, sweat and tears over unpublishable pages; long days and nights of hard work at a typewriter; constant worry that one is never really good enough; books that fail spectacularly when they are expected to triumph; and the constant tick of time marching on throughout it all.

Don’t lose 20 years of your own life worrying about failure. Take the leap and write your own book, Mentor seems to say. Find your own mentors, by hook or by crook, and put your words on the page. We’ll be here to read them.

by Tom Grimes
Publisher: Tin House Books
Price: $16.95
ISBN: 978-0-9825048-9-5
256 pp.
Published August 2010