The Mentor: Tom Grimes

” … I have come to accept that this isn’t the only way to understand, and to be, who I am, which is a guy who’s done a lot of other things in his life than write books.”

mentor, adviser, master, guide, preceptor

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know how much I oscillate between feeling invincible and defeated. I make plans and set goals. I consistently carry out my end of the bargain, but when the time comes for others to lend a hand things get complicated. You may have read that throughout my writing career (if we can call it that), I’ve had various agents who have downright died or shifted focus. My work has been read by quite a few A-list editors who believe I’m talented but have yet to place money and their reputation on that bet. I’ve painted with the support of a great NYC-based artist and gallery owner, who’s now tied up with some other projects.  In the meantime, I spent years building a career in the pharmaceutical industry, obtained a master’s degree from an engineering department, wrote a business book for McGraw-Hill.

I know I still have time to achieve my creative goals but sometimes I get tired of trying and trying and trying. I work to improve with each word, wondering why it’s taking me so long to hit that magic level of perfection. I push myself with each painting.  When I think about who I am and what I’ve accomplished, I always tunnel into the creative side of my life, especially the writing. Sometimes, all the other things just seem like extra stuff I do to fill the time … mindless like watching TV. 

But lately I’ve realized that I’m actually a composite of all that I’ve set out to do and all that I’ve achieved.  Nothing is mindless. Nothing is wasted. Nothing I’ve accomplished has been easy; I’ve worked hard.  Something made me choose to study Biology in college rather than English. Something made me want to work hard and progress in the pharmaceutical industry. Something motivated me to get that master’s degree while I was writing a book for McGraw-Hill and taking care of a toddler. All that was me pushing myself towards something I wanted.

A couple of years ago I left Johnson & Johnson thinking that I had to finally be true to myself.  I had to accept who I am as a creative individual. I wrote a third novel and half of a fourth. I picked up a paintbrush. I started this blog. I made numerous new connections in the publishing arena and in the art world. All good things!

People have said that I can’t have it all, and perhaps that’s true. Perhaps I can’t be a writer and paint while navigating and building a corporate career. But I look back and see that I was doing it all along. It’s all about time management, goal setting, patience, tenacity, and follow through. And I’m good at those things, too.

My guest today, Tom Grimes, has spent his life focusing on a dream eerily similar to mine. I recently read his new memoir, Mentor, which will be launched on August 1st.. His touching story centers around his relationship with Frank Conroy, the writing guru who for years shepherded the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  Through his book and this interview, Tom has given me a lot to think about.  Above all other criteria, that’s the kind of writer I love. One who somehow inspires me to think in new and powerful ways. One who by virtue of the words he chooses to share becomes a mentor.

In your new memoir, Mentor (Tin House Books, August 2010), you write about knowing and not knowing who you are. Can you tell us who you are?

Writing the book told me who I am. I’m a writer, and I’ve been one since I was nineteen. I don’t have an identity, really, outside of defining myself as a writer. I’ve had successes in my life other than what I’ve accomplished as a writer, but they don’t mean that much to me. In retrospect, however, reducing my entire sense of identity to myself success or failure as a writer was a dumb and, to an extent, a dangerous thing to do. But I didn’t understand this. More importantly, I didn’t feel it. I was emotionally incapable of taking, or at least unwilling to take, pleasure in my other accomplishments. This wasn’t fair to myself – but then, I do have a penchant for self-destructive behavior – but it also wasn’t considerate with regard to the people who had helped me accomplish those things. Before I wrote this book, I said to another writer, “A lot of people think I have a great life. The problem is, I’m not one of them.” I’ve always wanted to be a “great” writer. I didn’t care about being rich or famous. I needed to believe that I was writing books that would be read and would be meaningful to people a hundred years from now. I haven’t really surrendered that hope, but I have come to accept that this isn’t the only way to understand, and to be, who I am, which is a guy who’s done a lot of other things in his life than write books.

For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?

I never think about who will read what I write, while I’m working. So, it’s creation, I suppose. I enjoy “making” a book. Whenever I’m writing, the world disappears, time dissolves, and I’m no longer “me,” and I enjoy that feeling. But I don’t feel a “need” to express myself.

 I don’t believe in writer’s block. I view the situation like priming a pump. If you keep pumping, the water will eventually flow. What are your thoughts on this?

Do you believe the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life’s aberrations, or both? 

Both. I focused so completely on being a writer that I never really paid attention to other possibilities in my life. I worked seven days a week, three to four hours a day. When I had a job that began at eight a.m., I got up at four a.m., then sat at table with a cup of coffee, a notebook, and a pencil, trying to make sentences without falling asleep. But this kind of behavior, which some might consider pathological — I mean, who locks him or herself in a room for hours at a time to make things up? – also kept me sane. It didn’t fill the emptiness I felt inside, which had been there from the time I was a kid. Nor did it silence the voices of self-doubt. But it kept them at bay.

Have you ever had to deal with people failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you’ve dealt with it?

I grew up in a house with very few books and parents who didn’t read – my father dropped out of school after he finished the eighth grade, my mother graduated from high school and became a typist in the office where she met my father. Consequently, they didn’t understand the fact that I could not understand chemistry and calculus, which was necessary to get into medical school. (They wanted me to be a dentist.) That I aced lit classes was meaningless to them. When I told them I was giving up the, for me, (ludicrous) pursuit of dentistry and told them that I wanted to be a writer, my father essentially disowned me over Sunday dinner. Only when my first novel was a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” did my mother get it. By then, my father was dead, so he never did.

I often ask if there is a difference between being talented and being creative. What are your thoughts on this and how does this distinction play out with the writers you’ve known or taught in academia? Are they all both talented and creative?

Tough question. As a creative writing teacher and the director of an MFA Program in Creative Writing, I look for signs of talent or a distinctive voice when I read the hundreds of applications we receive each year. An applicant’s work never has to be anywhere near “perfect.” I just want to find a seed that might be nurtured, if looked after properly. Talent and creativity go hand and hand. It’s just that, early one in a writer’s life, the two aren’t necessarily in sync.

 Based on your experience, what are some of the most common questions or issues that cause writing students to struggle?

Avoiding conflict in their stories, and tossing out the best parts of what they’d originally written. It never fails. When I say, or the other students in class say, it seems like such and such should have happened, the writer says, I wrote that, then cut it. And it’s true. They’re often afraid of, or can’t quite seem to see, what needs to be dramatized in their stories. I always say, “Give me the TV Guide description of this story. If it says, Bill goes out, who’ll want to watch the show? If it says, Bill goes out, then jumps off a bridge, the show might get a decent Nielsen rating because people will want to know why Bill jumped off the bridge.” Often, students lack the craft to make things happen. Learning certain aspects of craft with regard to stories and novels doesn’t guarantee that someone will become a good writer. What it does guarantee is that the person will learn how to ask him or herself what mistakes he or she might be making. If you can ask this question, you can answer it. That’s when a student’s confidence kicks in.
Henry David Thoreau said, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” How important is it for those who self-identify as writers at an early age to seek out formal, academic training? Is academic training or life experience more important for the writer? When a writer needs both, I wonder if an intense drive for one can potentially overshadow the other. What are your thoughts on this?

Each writer makes his or her life differently. Some go to an MFA Program, some don’t. The main thing is to decide what you need. Do you need to be part of a community of writers? Enroll in an MFA Program. Happy on your own? Don’t. In either case, read. Great books are your best teachers.

In your opinion, what transforms a novel into art? What elements lift a particular novel far above the thousands that are written each year?

There’s no answer to this question other than to say that the depth and breadth of feeling, the willingness to explore any subject, and the knowledge that you have aesthetic freedom to do write about whatever you want to might produce a work of art. For example, who would have thought, “Oh, I’ll write a novel about a pederast. That’ll get me into the literary history books.” It sounds absurd, until you read Lolita. A huge, important, and universal subject like war has yielded plenty of forgettable novels. It isn’t the scope of the subject that makes something a work of art; it’s an author’s unique sensibility with regard to his or her subject.
What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

I make up my life from day to day (more or less). Most people do; we’re always dealing with what life flings our way. A writer simply has the impulse to write some of it down.

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