"You don't choose the writer's life, the writer's life chooses you."
When Grimes first meets Frank Conroy (then director of the legendary
Iowa Writers' Workshop), he tells him he recently applied to the program.
Conroy's response? "Yeah, you and eight hundred others." But Grimes
was not only accepted; he was offered the top scholarship an auspicious
beginning. Grimes wanted to write big books, masterpieces. While he was
still a student, his second novel sold at auction, with four prestigious publishing
houses bidding. Conroy, who had taken Grimes under his wing
first as a student, and later as a friend and surrogate son reveled in his
protégé's success, and promised more to come.
Thus Grimes was ill prepared for what came next: poor and mixed
reviews, dejection, and abandonment from the publishing maw. Few writers
experience Grimes's triumphant rise into the life that had chosen him,
but many share his failures. What sets his story apart is his relationship
with Conroy, whose support and encouragement were unflagging. "It's taken
me twenty years to understand that our unexpected friendship, rather than
my novel, was the real work of art," writes Grimes. Mentor is both touching
and sobering an honest book about writing, packed with excellent
advice. And a fascinating and heartfelt tribute to a mannot for the books
he wrote but for the gruff, often unspoken love he gave.
Read an Excerpt
Jody and I found a small house with a second-floor room adjacent to our bedroom where I'd work. I assembled my makeshift desk in front of a window that looked down on a narrow dirt road and the backyards and wooden garages bordering each side of it. It was August, and the leaves of the treetop outside the window partially obscured my view, but they left enough natural light for me to write by each morning. Before classes started, I prepared my syllabus and began to read the novels I would teach. On the first day of classes, I opened a spiral-bound, red-covered notebook. After ruling out notebooks with cerulean blue and pea green covers, I'd bought five red ones. I'm superstitious writer. I didn't want to switch colors as I wrote the novel, and my intuition had drawn me to red, which I believed would bring me luck, as would the new pack of twelve No. 2 pencils, a thumb-sized pink eraser, and a handheld pencil sharpener with a transparent plastic casing that allowed me to see the sharpener's blade peel away thin slices of wood each time I needed to write with a finer point.
I was determined to work three to four hours per day, seven days a week. At 8:30 am, when Jody left for her new job at a design firm, I carried a cup of milky coffee and a slice of toast lacquered with jam into my office, closed the door, and waited. The air still, the room quiet, my pencil ready, the page blank and patient. An hour passed. Then for ten minutes I watched a squirrel leap from branch to branch and occasionally pause to scratch one ear with his rear claw, or else perch on a limb, looking attentive and slightly paranoid. As cars exited garages and rolled down the dirt lane, I studied them with sniperlike concentration, noting their grimy windshields or polished hoods. Gradually, the sun crept toward its noonday peak and brightened my window. Shadows no longer slanted. Instead, they stood as erect as cadets. And I developed a layman's interest in avian life. I'd been unaware of my interest in blue jays and cardinals. Why hadn't I noticed their vibrant plumage before? Maybe I could become an ornithologist. And why were sports teams named after birds, fish, and marine mammals? The blue jays, the cardinals, the marlins, the dolphins? From time to time, I summoned the energy to focus on my novel, on the empty page, and on the words I needed to fill it. Hemingway eluded this mental blankness by stopping work midsentence. The next morning, he'd have to finish the sentence. By the time he did, he'd be into the novel again, its tempo, its rhythm, its groove, its landscape, its characters' thoughts and their actions. I had to find that first word. And I'd made a rule: I would never leave my chair until I'd pressed enough graphite onto a page to form a paragraph. I'd staked my future on this book. I either wrote it and succeeded, or I failed to and was finished.
Five years earlier, I'd begun the novel without a clue as to what,
if anything, it might become. Immodestly, I wanted to rewrite The Great Gatsby, and for several days I mimicked its sentence rhythms, its restrained, romantic, yet morally upright cadence, which perfectly articulated Nick Carraway's view of the world. I imitated Fitzgerald's linguistic fluidity and the nuanced felicity of his prose. In an abstract way, I focused not on plot or character, but on money, and a grandiose, and no doubt nave, insight into its place in American life. I continued this, filling perhaps twenty notebook pages, until a sentence escaped from Fitzgerald's parade of flawless sentences and became my own. I heard my narrator say, "A word of advice: Don't appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated when you're twenty-one." And then I listened and wrote. I wasn't taking dictation; I revised phrases and chose more accurate or appropriate words before committing them to paper. But I had a character, although I didn't have his story, only the genesis of it. I'd never expected to write about baseball. My imagination had surprised me, and so I made a decision. If baseball was to be my subject, then baseball would be the lens through which I examined America. Baseball would be my great white whale. And as I was writing the novel's initial pages, I discovered a passage in John Cheever's diaries that summed up my task. At least, I believed it did. And so, at all times, I kept it tucked in my notebook, and I reread it often, to assuage my doubts and to remind me of what I'd set out to accomplish.
Cheever had written: "I think that the task of an American writer is not to describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain but to describe four hundred people under the lights reaching for a foul ball. This is ceremony. The umpires in clericals, sifting out the souls of the players; the faint thunder as ten thousand people, at the bottom of the eighth, head for the exits. The sense of moral judgments embodied in a migratory vastness."
Now, at my desk, I waited. Several hours later I wrote my first sentence in Iowa City. From there, I continued. Calm, euphoric, terrified.