Letters to a Young Poet

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Lighting the Way: On Mentoring and Being Mentored

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Last weekend, I watched about six hours’ worth of The Voice, NBC’s latest singing competition/reality show.  (Dude, don’t judge me: I have a new full-time job called “waiting-for-my-cervix-to-dilate.”)  One of the main differences between The Voice and its progenitor American Idol is that on the former’s early episodes, contestants sing for four musical stars: Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo (Who?), Adam Levine (Who?) and Blake Shelton (Who?).  If one of these stars likes a contestant, the contestant has the option of joining the star’s “team.”  Once on a team, the contestants are promised guidance on things like pitch and stage presence, as well as wisdom about the industry.  It’s sort of like getting into grad school.

I found myself mesmerized by the enthusiasm of the four famous singers for certain contestants; there was something touching and true about their sincerity.  In these first episodes, there’s a real sense that the singers want to help the unknown contestants, light their way.  Although later episodes don’t exactly live up to the opening’s promise (the guidance offered–if there is any–is pretty generic), the warm and fuzzy image of Christina raising her blow-up doll arms in triumph at a contestant’s diva pipes has stayed with me.  I can identify.

You see, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of mentors.

In high school, I had two English teachers who read my poetry, and urged me to keep writing.  Maybe they were blowing smoke up my ass, but I was only sixteen, and if not for their encouragement, I might have quit stringing words together.  In college, my creative writing professor not only gave me feedback on my short stories, he also introduced me to writers like Lynda Barry and Joy Williams.  He told me what an MFA program was, and a literary agent, and a university press; he described to me how painful it was to write a novel, and I remember those conversations vividly.  During these years, I also worked with two English professors who pushed my analytic capabilities and got me to read writers like Vladimir Nabokov and A.M. Homes; I’m currently waiting for one of those teachers to give me notes on my novel-in-progress–I can’t wait for his feedback.  Later, in graduate school, I became close with two female  teachers (my previous mentors had all been male), and our conversations sometimes went from being about craft, voice and structure to being about gender, and even, once, about motherhood.

Almost two years ago, I was lucky enough to find a new mentor; we were both writers at an artists’ retreat, and we hit it off.  Like any good mentor, he is older than I am, and more accomplished, and his writing is superb and ambitious.  Because his road to publication wasn’t easy, he is able to offer advice that wunderkinds like, say, Zadie Smith or Jonathan Safran Foer simply couldn’t.  Put another way: my mentor is used to rejection.  His war stories may be sobering, but his subsequent success puts such struggles in perspective.  When he writes in an email,  “I’m pulling for you, kid,” I know he means it.

There was and is no competition between me and these mentors.  I look up to them, and they urge me forward. I am thankful for each of them and what they’ve offered me at different points in my life as a writer.  I don’t want to imagine what I might not have attempted, creatively and professionally, were it not for their support and enthusiasm, their benevolent shadows.

You might say it’s hard to have a mentor if you’re not in school or involved in a writing community, but that’s not true.  Over the years, I have cultivated meaningful relationships with various writers–or rather, with their work–and these relationships have guided me in the sometimes scary and frustrating post-graduate years.  Jennifer Egan became my mentor, whether she likes it or not, as soon as I’d finished Look at Me.  John Williams became my beyond-the-grave mentor with his novel Stoner.  Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood–well, let’s just say they’re my Canadian mothers.

By my desk, a shelf of my favorite writers’ books watches over me; I swear they radiate a magical power.  You can do it, these authors whisper.  Go, go, go! Their own writing is so good, it humbles me, and it also makes me work harder.

A couple of days before I fell down the reality TV-hole, I read an article by journalist Steve Silberman, who’s writing a nonfiction book about autism.  Faced with the daunting task of working on a long project after years of writing articles, Silberman asked for advice from a bunch of authors he knows and respects.   The guidance he received ranges from the practical (Carl Zimmer says, “Be ready to organize vast amounts of data. Use a wall, or software like Scrivener.”); to the candid (David Gans says, “The most striking thing about my book processes was that no one at the publisher did any editing at all.  No fact checking, no line editing.”); to the inspiring (Mark Frauenfelder says, “Don’t forget to write the book you want to read.”)    There are many great tips to absorb and weigh, and they’re particularly helpful to those working on nonfiction, where interviews and research are part of the writing process.  My main impression after reading the article, however, is that these authors were happy to lend their expertise to a friend, to one of their kind.

This makes sense to me.  When a writer must state her opinion and articulate her struggles, her understanding of her own work and processes is sharpened.  I, for one, like when someone asks me about my writing schedule, or how long it took to get my first short story published, or why, when I first began writing fiction, I gravitated toward the first-person.  Answering these questions teaches me about myself and my work.  I am forced to believe in something, be it a process, an approach, a sentence rhythm, and I realize that everything I write–however small or unpublished–has weight, becomes part of my writerly DNA.  Were I were to withhold these experiences from others, I wouldn’t be able to learn from them.

But I don’t think all writers feel this way.  A few years ago, when I was in graduate school, Jonathan Franzen came to give a reading and a craft talk, the latter of which was only open to MFA students.  The first question posed during the craft talk was, unsurprisingly, “Can you talk a little bit about your writing process?”  Franzen, upon hearing the question, looked pained, his eyebrows furrowed, his forehead compressing into wrinkles.  Now, I agree that this isn’t the most original question–but it was, after all, a god damned craft talk.  I’m not sure what Mr. Franzen expected.  “My process…” he began.  “My process…”  After a theatrical pause, he sighed and shifted his limbs.  Then he said,  “I don’t have one.”   Later, however, through other questions, he revealed that he did in fact have a process, which, if I recall, was pretty neurotic, including a specific office chair, at a specific angle, etc., etc.   I was so pissed at J. Fran; why not just be forthcoming?

Recently, I asked my student Catie Disabato if she considered me her mentor.  I was embarrassed to pose such a question, but I was thinking about writing this essay, and I wanted to explore both sides of this lovely relationship: the mentor and the mentee.  But I needed to be sure that I was actually qualified.

When Catie said I was indeed her writing mentor, I was very, very pleased.  Catie is a few years younger than I am, and her novel-in-progress, a fictional nonfiction book about the disappearance of Lady Gaga (among other things, including map-making and The Situationists), blows my head off it’s so good.  It might seem arrogant to consider myself the mentor of such a talented writer, but, then again, that’s the joy of the role: you’re putting your faith in someone you really believe in, and, in some ways, you get to share in their success.

Often, a mentee’s questions and crises require you to look at your own artistic and professional trajectory, and view it retrospectively.  I’ve found, in my few years of teaching, that helping students write fiction that is beautiful and bold and true reminds me of why I myself write.  It’s also kept my cynicism at bay.  Through my students I remember how hard it is to get a story rejected for the first time, and how rewarding it can feel when a group of peers loves your prose. Often when I am giving advice, I’m really just talking to myself–to a younger me, or just, well, me.

There’s also, of course, pleasure in getting to be a voice of experience and authority. I have no doubt that Rilke enjoyed writing his Letters to a Young Poet just as much as the young poet enjoyed receiving them; both were sustained by that relationship.

Catie–oh smart one–believes there are mentors and there are anti-mentors. The latter hoards information and advice, perhaps to keep others from achieving the same status.  I doubt Franzen was motivated in this way (after all, a group of anonymous graduate students isn’t the same as one talented writer whose writing you know well), but his little performance of withholding wisdom and practical advice felt stingy, not to mention isolating.  Hearing about someone’s writing process won’t change (or improve) your own, but at least it creates camaraderie, lets us all feel a little less alone.  Isn’t that what every writer needs?

I hope, for my own mentors, that my struggles and successes have asked them to look inward and backward. In this seeking, answers to their own questions are revealed.  That’s what happens to me, at least, when I am faced with  helping a student.  I am always stunned and delighted to discover the ways that they end up helping me, how they enrich my own work and life.

So if you want to know about my writing process, ask away.  And if you’re secretly, or not-so-secretly, my mentor: thank you, thank you, thank you.

(Image: Light Painting from vfsdigitaldesign’s photostream)

Book Lovers

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It starts out innocently. I recommend Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. “I think you’d like Johnson,” I say, after reading one of his short story drafts. “The violence and the tenderness together. ‘Emergency’ will knock you out.” He’s never read Johnson before. I know it will knock him out.

It does (of course). He can’t stop talking about it. I introduce him to some of Johnson’s poetry. What else? he asks. Meaning: more, more, I want to be knocked out again.

We’d talked about minimalism. I recommend Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He is European, so I am sure he’s read it, but he hasn’t. Again, he loves it. What else? Now I have cred. Now we’re rolling.

He goes back to Europe. The email exchanges begin. He sends me “In Memory of My Feelings” by Frank O’Hara. I send him Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear.” Don’t be intimidated by Kierkegaard, he writes, start with the Diapsalmata. And Proust goes fast, once you get into it. Read Sherwood Anderson, I write. Winesburg, Ohio.

Then David Foster Wallace dies, and we both read Consider the Lobster before even mentioning it to one another. What a coincidence. The Dostoevsky essay. Yes, yes, the Dostoevsky essay.

Rilke creeps in (of course he does). He reads Letters to a Young Poet, I read On Love and Other Difficulties. It all comes together in Rilke, he writes. It crystallizes. Yes, I write, Rilke goes his own way, beauty and goodness are one – not sequential, not interdependent, but one.

More Hemingway. I find him unanalyzable, I write. The greatest work is like that, don’t you think? I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and quote this passage:
Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color. For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.
My God, I write, what is there to say? Yes, he writes back, I could not have stated it better, the way pure language leaves you speechless; I feel exactly the same way.

For two months, neither of us writes. His father is ill, my manuscript is due. An awkward, quiet phase, during which I slog through The Brothers Karamazov (can’t seem to keep my head in the game – guilt, theology, melodrama. Too much, too much…). He writes again, responds to my last email in which I complained about the Twilight phenomenon in the US. There are so many other better guilty pleasures, I’d written – Edith Wharton, Balzac, Palahniuk and Pelecanos. Yes, he writes, recalling a particular page-turning summer of his youth: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity. All mind-blowing, all in one week.

Then, a small thing I notice – a reference to the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, which he’d recommended some time before, maybe more than once. When you get to it… he writes. That book really changed my life. When I get to it. In the back of my mind – a tiny thought, barely perceptible – I think: when am I ever going to get to Erlend Loe, when I’ve got Jean Rhys, Bolaño, Toni Morrison, and Tolstoy on the nightstand? I think also about whether I’d ever say such a thing: That book changed my life.

He writes that The Name of the World – a minor Johnson novel I’d recommended as an alternative to Tree of Smoke – didn’t speak to him, but Douglas Coupland is wrecking him. I write that since it was the scene in The Name of the World where the narrator has an atheistic epiphany (he is sitting in church and realizes, ecstatically, that he doesn’t believe in God) that really got me, I’d be interested in Coupland’s Life After God. But really, I only half mean it. In the back of my mind, I think: I am too old for it.

I don’t know exactly how old he is, likely a few years younger than I; but now I begin to wonder just how many years.

He’s reading more David Foster Wallace, sings the cultic praises of Kerouac (I roll my eyes a little). He raves about Lars von Trier (ok, but Breaking the Waves made me literally vomit). I recommend In Bruges – Martin McDonagh is kind of a genius, I write – which he watches and then reports back as “odd” and “all falling apart at the end.” We both agree that “Sonny’s Blues” is indeed a masterpiece.

I don’t hear from him for over a month. I do google searches on Erlend Loe and read this at 3000 Books:
If Tao Lin is the self-referential, disaffected freak-pop on the literary twenty-something’s jukebox, then Erlend Loe is the guy sitting in the corner at the piano, picking out notes that eventually turn into a tune.
I add Life After God to my goodreads.com to-read list.

I think: what the hell am I doing?

He writes again, back from travels. I decide to throw in a curve ball, just to see what happens. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by the Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany is the best book no one’s ever heard of, I write. I happen to believe this, but I don’t imagine he’ll agree. For good measure, I add: Have you seen Superbad? I could watch that movie over and over again. (This, too, is true.)

I think: what the hell am I doing?

The next I hear from him the email is short. He has deadlines to meet. He is planning a trip to Berlin for work, then Venice with his girlfriend.

You must bring Death in Venice along for the trip, I write.

Ah, yes, it’s been years, he writes. I suspect it holds up over time.

I suspect it does, I write. One of the great literary endings. The decrepit Aschenbach, slumped over in a beach chair, that final reverie of youth and eros.

He asks me if I am on Facebook.

I write yes.

Let’s be Facebook friends.

Yes, let’s. (My mind flashes to all the profile photos of me and J. – grilling fish on the porch, gussied up for a film opening, canvassing for Obama.)

I read on about Erlend Loe: “Naive.Super is a tiny charmer, a ripe fig that falls out of a budget store Christmas cracker onto your toe. Sure, it’s 12 years old, but it remains a fresh antithesis to the meta-literary swagger of the 21st century, an antidote to superanalysis and overcomplexity.” I think: that sounds refreshing. And J. might like it, even though he generally prefers nonfiction. I click, moving it from my wish list into the shopping cart.

Surprise Me!