Monday, April 25, 2011

Frank Conroy, Tom Grimes and the writing life

Originally printed October 28, 2010.

About a month ago, novelist Tom Grimes felt a great reversal taking place.

After a post-class session at Texas' version of Iowa City's The Mill, the director of the Program in Creative Writing at Texas State University drove one of his students back to her car. And as he parked, she began telling him how worried she was that her work wouldn't live up to his expectations and how much she wanted to make sure she didn't disappoint him.

"She said, 'You know, the way you didn't want to disappoint, Frank'," Grimes remembered during a phone interview Friday.

Grimes said he suddenly was taken back to two decades earlier, when he was an MFA student in the world famous Iowa Writers' Workshop and he sat idling in car in the alley across from Prairie Lights Books, and he told his mentor, the late Workshop director Frank Conroy, of his fears about not living up to the praise that the older writer had heaped upon his application manuscript.

"What had changed was that she was in the passenger seat, and I was in the drivers' seat," Grimes said. "I now was the guy behind the wheel."

Grimes' MFA student knew all about her professor's past fears, neuroses and anxieties of influence because the novelist describes them so extensively in his new non-fiction book about the writing life and his long relationship with Conroy: "Mentor: A Memoir" (Tin House Books, 2010).

Grimes said the project began when he was asked to write an essay about Conroy's legacy for Tin House Magazine. After rereading Conroy's oeuvre, he submitted a section of the essay that described Conroy as a stand-in for Grimes's own non-literary-minded father. The editors didn't think the direction was quite right for an essay, but they urged Grimes to keep working on "whatever it is you've started here."

The result is a book that documents just how much -- or how little -- one writer can pass along to another. Conroy loved Grimes's manuscript and offered him a fellowship to focus the younger writers' time in Iowa City on finishing the novel, but the older writer never provided any close, instructive reading of the manuscript until after Grimes's agent secured a publication bid. And Grimes seems to learn as much about writing from reading Conroy's work than from anything Conroy did in an institutional capacity.

It's not surprising to learn that many of Grimes's students and colleagues have thanked him for being so candid and thorough in describing the humbling agony that come with wrestling with language -- especially for a workshop graduate who says his ambitions may have been stoked beyond his talents.

"They tell me, 'I'm glad to know I'm not alone,'" Grimes said.

Nor is it surprising that reviewers seem to disagree about whether the excruciatingly painful writers' life Grimes describes is:

• A difficult but rewarding process worth celebrating.

• Or a strange form of literary self-flagellation that only serves to exacerbate (rather than to exercise) a writer's depressive demons.

"I understand myself through the lens of failure," Grimes said. "A lot of people might say to me, 'You must be pretty happy. You're directing a creative writing program and publishing books. It's a great life.' Yeah, but the only problem with it is that it's my life, and it's not what I expected."

At its storytelling best, "Mentor" is a well-written tale that in which Grimes honors Conroy's own 1967 memoir, "Stop-Time," without at all seeking to imitate that ground-breaking book.

And even at its solipsistic worst, "Mentor" still is a book that, as Jayne Anne Phillips writes, "belongs on the shelf of every writer, every teacher, every reader."

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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