TEXT review

Writing about Tom writing about Frank

review by Alice Robinson



Tom Grimes
Mentor: a memoir
Tin House Books: Portland and New York, 2010
ISBN 9780982504895
Pb, 242pp, AUD23.95


Prior to picking up Mentor, I am ashamed to say that I had never read the novels of either its author Tom Grimes, or muse Frank Conroy. After finishing the memoir however, I found myself trawling the web for information on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the prestigious writing course with which both men were affiliated, and indeed the place at which their long friendship began.  Little more really need be said to underscore the effect Grimes’ beautifully written book had on me. He conveyed so simply and powerfully the symbiosis between his writing life and his friendship with Conroy, and what being at Iowa meant to the development of both, that as an emerging writer myself, I was deeply affected by Grimes’ narrative and desperately wanted in on that world. Yet despite my own personal giddy reaction, this is not merely a book for writers, aspiring or otherwise, although undoubtedly it is one of the more poetic meditations on writing and the writing life. Rather, I wager that anyone who has experienced ambition and success and disappointment will appreciate and be affected by the poignancy of Grimes’ prose, if not his heartfelt story. At its root, Mentor is also a book about enduring love between admiring colleagues who become friends, who become, finally, father and son.

Grimes is in his early thirties when Mentor opens and still working in hospitality, as is the way with so many aspiring creative types. Though for years he had been scribbling away in private between restaurant shifts, he admits to feeling ‘condemned to lead a waiter’s life, not a writer’s’ (4). Grimes captures beautifully the pervasive sense of helplessness and inertia that such a lifestyle manifests, in which the gulf between dreams and reality appears immeasurable; the rift between that glimmer of potential and the hard slog of its realisation, impossible to overcome. In a last ditch attempt to make something of himself, Grimes applies to various universities. Here he underscores the literal and metaphorical tensions between writing and waiting tables:

I still half believed that creative writing programs had nothing to teach anyone and was suddenly terrified of being rejected. I selected four programs... I assembled an application… I dropped four copies off at the Key West post office and then did what most young writers do – I waited. (5)

Simultaneous with the painful university application process, in the very first few pages of Mentor, the eager Grimes is brutally snubbed by Conroy – his literary idol – at a bookish event: 

“I’ve applied to the Writer’s Workshop.”
“Yeah, you and eight hundred others.”
…he walked right past me. He’d spotted an old friend. Shoulder to shoulder, their backs to me, they sauntered off. (7-8)

This is a fantastic way to open and to introduce both men to the reader, because shortly thereafter Grimes is accepted into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, instantly achieving a long hoped-for measure of success. We are right behind him, having just borne witness to his lowest, most humiliating point. That the context of Grimes’ success comes intertwined with the very person who so harshly belittled his advances only pages before, makes for good reading. More importantly, the book’s opening is indicative not only of the unbelievable serendipity – perhaps even fatefulness – but also of the unexpected nature of Grimes and Conroy’s relationship. In purposefully setting up his narrative in this way, by playing with the reader’s expectation, Grimes displays both the power of his storytelling ability, and the measure of how much he has learned from Conroy about his craft.

Mentor is then an ode to Grimes’ great writing teacher, not only in content, but in form as well. At times, Grimes’ debt to Conroy-as-teacher is self-consciously explicit in his prose; Grimes literally channels Conroy’s voice, largely in aid of writing those important, emotive scenes fundamental to both men’s lives, and therefore the memoir. ‘Don’t just have the main character leap up and yell, “Yippee!”’ Grimes intones as Conroy, when describing his own response to the offer of a place at Iowa, ‘Understate the narrator’s emotional reaction’ (12). The closeness of their relationship and its profound effect on Grimes, are clear to the reader because Grimes makes pains to articulate Conroy’s influence. But more implicitly, the impact of their friendship is clear because it is implicit in the way Grimes has constructed his prose.

By bringing us into the world of the struggling writer in the opening section of the book, Grimes renders his success, when it arrives, all the more sweet. But Mentor is no Hollywood tale of down-and-out writer making the big time overnight. Grimes has to fight for his writing achievements, and he doesn’t always win:

I’m a failure as a writer because I’ve overreached; my ambition was larger than my talent. Yet I willingly accepted that risk, believing I could overcome it. Every great novel, it’s been said, is a “long story with a flaw in it.” I’ve mastered the flaws. (169)

Grimes seems to be saying that the difficulty he experienced over the course of his career is due not so much to any major personal failing, even despite his long struggle with crippling depression, but because that’s just how life goes. The narrative is starkly poignant for its true rendering of the ups and many downs inherent in a writing life. Despite the accolades Grimes exhaustively scrapes together over the course of his career, he continues to make mistakes, remains underappreciated as a writer; he suffers.  ‘Every day,’ Grimes writes of his experience even now, ‘I face a blank page knowing that the majority of the words I commit to the page will be wrong’ (132). What Grimes so adeptly communicates is that, ultimately, writing cannot be a means to an end, but must be the end in of itself.

Aside from Grimes’ captivating exploration of his long friendship with Convoy then, and interwoven with the development of both their writing careers, Mentor provides a wonderfully acute and inspiring image of what it means, and how it is, to be a writer. A portrait more unflinching and honest than others I have read, and in accordance with my own experience of writing, what sits at the heart of Grimes’ account is the enormous debt of gratitude he owes for Conroy’s mentoring. Without Conroy’s guidance, his love, one wonders whether Grimes would have achieved all he did; in fact, the writer himself is convinced that he would not have. He writes, ‘I didn’t get everything I’d longed for, but I got more than enough… I’ve escaped my father’s mockery and earned Frank’s admiration… I know this: if I hadn’t met him, I wouldn’t be typing these words' (224-225).

Grimes makes a compelling case for the benefit, even requirement, of having a mentor, particularly as a writer and no matter what stage of career one is in. In reading Mentor, I felt warmly embraced by two great writers who both seemed to understand, intimately, just how hard the game of writing is; how badly each of us wants our work to succeed. In a sense then, the mentor of the book’s title is not Conroy to Grimes-as-fledgling-novelist, but Grimes to his readers. In this way, the cycle of literary support continues, passed down through well-meaning, thoughtful prose, and transcribed memory.


Alice Robinson is completing a PhD at Victoria University. She works as a freelance writer, professional book and writing group facilitator, and lectures in creative writing at NMIT. Her fiction, reviews and essays have been published in print and online. She blogs on books and reading at www.critrature.blogspot.com


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Vol 15 No 2 October 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy