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Mentors, Muses & Monsters

Well-known writers recall the big names they encountered on the way up – both those that helped them and those that hindered.

By Susan Comninos / November 3, 2009



Once, I was young and broke and living in Boston. It was 1991 – another bleak economic year – but, high on the town’s literary history, I moved there after graduate school to become a writer. Instead, the months sped past as I scored just one or two ill-paid freelance gigs.

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Desperate, I cold-called a college alumnus, a top editor at a storied magazine, to ask for a job. He invited me in for an interview, skimmed the poetry manuscript that I’d brought, and then threw it down. “I really want to discourage you,” he said, and suggested that I try to sell things out of my car. The worst part was, I didn’t have one. I couldn’t afford it.

But that was long ago, and, by dint of time and luck, things improved. Still, the experience stuck with me, even drove me at points, and it comes to mind now on reading Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, a mesmerizing book of essays by famous pens who themselves were once helped – or hurt – by established talents as they tried to climb their way up the literary ladder.

The book, edited by Elizabeth Benedict, beautifully captures the experience of being a literary aspirant – wide-eyed, enchanted by words, and eager for the tutelage of a mentor – one who’s already scaled the temple wall and emerged, shining, in a turret.

Reflecting on the state are some well-known voices ranging in tone from youthfully sanguine or self-serious (Benedict, Jonathan Safran Foer) to sensitive, solitary, or shy (Robert Boyers, Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Smiley). Together, they offer a real, giddy, and sometimes painful look at the ride that can result when a literary “name” suggests that one has – or does not have – talent.

For Benedict, the trip was launched on comments by novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, with whom she studied at Barnard in the 1970s. Of her wish to become a writer, she recalls Hardwick said, “I think you can do the work ... but you have to decide if you want such a hard life.”

To some, that might sound like scant praise. But Benedict took it as an endorsement. Similarly, as a college student, Foer found meaning in a gift that he gave to Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai – a snow globe that he handed to the literary icon at a reading – which the latter accepted, and kept.

Still, Foer wanted more: mentorship, acknowledgment, contact. “Why didn’t I write him letters?” he laments in an essay, written after Amichai’s 2000 death. “Why didn’t I insist on another meeting, which could have been done easily enough. (I’ve since heard of a number of people who got to spend time with him this way.)”

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