MENTOR: A MEMOIR by Tom Grimes

Book Quote:

“I hadn’t expected to write this book, but, in a way, our memoirs form bookends. His about childhood, adolescence, and a lost father, mine about writing, teaching, and a father found. Our story has come full circle. The story’s meaning mystifies me, yet if Frank were alive he’d agree that neither of us would choose to live in a world that was unmarked by the passage of time, and anything other than inscrutable.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn (AUG 1, 2010)

Writer, teacher, and philanthropist, Tom Grimes, wrote this memoir about his friendship with Frank Conroy and his struggles with writing and publishing. Grimes opens his narrative in 1980’s Key West, where he’s striving to write publishable work while earning money as a waiter. After applying to the Iowa Writing Workshop MFA program, he heard Frank Conroy speak at a seminar in Florida. Later, he approached him offstage with enthusiastic questions about writing and the workshop. Conroy, who had recently become Director at Iowa, dismissed him. He ambled right past Tom to talk to a friend, waving him off that his chances of acceptance were slim to zip (in so many words). His confidence punctured, Tom went home to tear up—really, he gutted—Conroy’s celebrated memoir, Stop-Time. He tossed it in the garbage and wiped his hands of Frank Conroy.

During the subsequent interval of furious emotions–getting rejected by various schools, being frustrated with his job–Tom received a phone call. It was from Conroy, who had no clue that he was speaking to someone he had snubbed. He wouldn’t have even remembered the encounter. Frank spoke to him in his hoarse, cigarette-laden voice, saying that he loved his manuscript (Grimes’ unfinished novel) and that he has been accepted into the Iowa program. Grimes was ecstatic. He and his wife, Jody, and their two cats, moved to the Midwest to begin the journey of his mentorship and friendship with Conroy.

Conroy took Tom under his wing, which caused jealousy in some of Tom’s classmates. There are some hilarious and horrifying examples of how this played out in the classroom. Frank believed in Tom’s talent and mentored him closely. Eventually, their relationship became more like a father-son bond. Although Conroy was often inexplicable, with a deadpan affect and wooly exterior, he was exuberant about Tom’s writing and ambition. He had given him a job teaching freshmen (Tom turned down scholarship money in lieu of real work), and, by increments, invited him into his life.

Grimes and Conroy had things in common. They grew up with an absent father; they wrote to secure a center of gravity. Moreover, they shared an emotional hemorrhage into the dark side of their minds. Grimes’ description of losing his grip and his personal dislocation with reality was nothing short of riveting. Frank’s Stop-Time memoir describes his repeated attempts to kill himself, without success.

Also, they were impassioned teachers and had a knack for organizing others to raise money, as well as culling collaboration on anthologies and projects. Grimes was instrumental in saving Katherine Anne Porter’s childhood home in Kyle, Texas. He directs the MFA program at Texas State University (in San Marcos, Texas), which is just minutes away. In persuading others to become part of the project, he helped get the funds to restore her home and use it for visiting writers to the University. As an Austin resident, I remember when the press released the decision to save her house. Conroy was well loved by writers and trustees alike, and he was adept at obtaining endowments for the facility and scholarships for students. Grimes related that Conroy flew to Austin to be at a dying James Michener’s bedside. In a lesser man, it would have seemed repugnantly opportunistic. But Conroy did just about everything with aplomb.

What is so touching about this memoir is the candid honesty of the narrative. Grimes isn’t afraid to reveal his awkwardness, his rejections, and his missteps. He keeps a fluid balance between light and heavy without tipping into a confessional mode. He confides with a generally natural ease, describing how his relationship with Conroy made it difficult for him to separate from his need for Frank’s approval. When one of Grimes’ novels failed to succeed, it took him years to realize that his confidence in it had been Frank’s confidence all along.

“I hadn’t been able to separate my need for Frank’s affection from my need to look at my novel as objectively as possible. Which is why it’s taken me twenty years to understand that our unexpected friendship, rather than my novel, was the real work of art.”

This is a commendable memoir for budding writers, also. There are teachable moments on the art and craft of writing, a peek at the editing process, and a gaping look at the vicissitudes of the publishing houses.

Occasionally, the narrative is too earnest or overripe. Tom’s trip home to his family after a tragic event was a bit self-conscious and overwritten. The incident speaks for itself, and required no additional melodrama. However, the impact of such an incident and the difficulty coping with mental illness in family members was poignant. I comprehended that Grimes may have some difficulty with the more gruesome autobiographical memories.

There are beautiful nuggets, especially about Tom’s relationship with writing, even more so than his relationship with Frank Conroy.

“Every day I face a blank page, knowing that the majority of the words I commit to the page will be wrong… But for me writing is a necessity. I exist in sentences. I forget my sense of failure. I forget time. I forget ageing. I forget that one day I’ll die. Revising sentences is an act of hope, and connecting with a reader is the only leap of faith I’ll ever take.”

I was unacquainted with Tom Grimes before I read his memoir. I won’t forget him easily, though. He made himself transparent and known; he connected with this reader in intimate, echoing ways. Additionally, he invited us into one of the most important relationships in his life, to his deeply touching bond with the enigmatic Frank Conroy. His humanity and his heart form a moving testament to his story. It is a memoir of friendship, faith, time, teaching, writing and reaching out to others.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 12 readers
PUBLISHER: Tin House Books; 1st edition (August 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and ExcerptWikipedia page on Frank Conroy
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More on the writing life:Off the Page by Carole Burns

The Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley



August 1, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Non-fiction

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