Friday, October 2, 2009

On Mentors, Muses & Monsters

We all remember that special person who encouraged our writing and, of course, the one who shut us down. Then there was the individual whose work inspired us to reach higher. Author Elizabeth Benedict (photo by Emma Dodge Hanson) would call these our “mentors, muses, and monsters”

Who influenced the amazing Joyce Carole Oates? Or Mary Gordon? Or Michael Cunningham? Or Jane Smiley? Readers can find out in Elizabeth’s new collection of essays, “Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives.” The collection also contains Elizabeth’s own essay, “Why Not Say What Happened?” in which she writes about her college tutorial teacher, esteemed woman of letters, Elizabeth Hardwick.

JRW: Elizabeth, what inspired you to write this book?

EB: I was asked to write a remembrance of Hardwick after she died (December 2008) for Tin House magazine. The night I sent it in, I was floating around my apartment, feeling particularly good, not just that I'd finished it but that I got to express my appreciation for what she'd meant to me when I was a college kid with nothing but a crazy ambition.

In that dreamy mood, I idly wondered if there was a book of essays about fiction writers and their mentors and went to Amazon to look - and there wasn't. An hour later, I'd cooked up the title -the 3 M's, as I call it - and the next day I invited Mary Gordon. She said yes right away. So did most of the other people I invited. I was stunned by how many people said yes, sometimes even before they knew whom they'd write about.

JRW: What were some of the revelations in these essays that surprised you?

EB: First of all, I expected everyone to write about a person, but many people wanted to write about a book or an author, dead or alive, and some wanted to write about a place or a transformative period. When Jane Smiley went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the 1970s, she was more inspired by her classmates than her teachers. Her piece, about them and the mood in 1974, is a lovely piece of personal and social history. Joyce Carol Oates wrote about what "Alice in Wonderland" means to her. In the 1970s, Sigrid Nunez was the girlfriend of Susan Sontag's son and lived in an apartment with both mother and son, and has a particularly intimate view of Sontag. I was surprised by the incredible variety of influences, from "Mrs. Dalloway" to "Harriet the Spy."

But mostly I was surprised by how seriously writers took the assignment. I knew the essays would be good, with this group of writers, but had no idea they would all give so much to these pieces. As you read, you can feel the engagement, the writers' determination to get every nuance right; it's exhilarating and very moving.

I came to understand that the relationship you have with a mentor is among the most powerful there is. That person noticed you when you were young and lost and said, "I think you've got talent, and here's what to do with it." We're lucky if that happens to us once! Falling in love and giving birth (so I've heard) are pretty powerful experiences. I think the mentor/influence connections - in their power to changes lives - are up there with those.

JRW: Were there any common threads?

EB: Writers are a cranky bunch who are prone to worry and complaining, but this subject seems to have opened the spigots of gratitude. For the most part, the writers were obsessed with their mentors.

Alexander Chee's piece about studying with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan is so full of detail and dialogue - from twenty years ago! - that it's like taking a course with Dillard, and a course in obsession: "By the time I was done studying with Annie," he writes, "I wanted to be her."

Cheryl Strayed is obsessed from afar with Alice Munro, in part because they both had mothers who died young. I've read this line in her essay a dozen times and it still breaks my heart with its vulnerability and longing: "I love Alice Munro, I took to saying, the way I did about any number of people I didn't know whose writing I admired, meaning, of course, that I loved her books.... But I loved her too, in a way that felt slightly ridiculous even to me."

JRW: Sounds like you've got more mentors than monsters.

EB: That surprised me too. The only full-blown one is in Edmund White's portrait of Harold Brodkey. There are a few other people whose behavior has monstrous moments, including a wicked step-mother. I expected there'd be someone who said, "Writing well is the best revenge for having been treated badly," but even Edmund White felt that Brodkey had been helpful to him as a writer. These writers clearly wanted to accentuate the positive - because they feel immense gratitude to the person who showed them the way.

JRW: Will you be out and about, promoting the book?

EB: I'll be on the pavement and on-line. If you're in New York City, Cambridge, MA, or DC, there'll be an event near you in November or early December. For details, visit the blog at where there'll also be some on-line chatting once the book comes out, and a few books to give away.

JRW: So, Jungle Red readers, tell us about your muses, mentors and monsters? Elizabeth will be responding to comments and questions. Please, join in the discussion.


  1. For me it was Arthur Edelstein, an extraordinary writing teacher who taught at what was then the Radcliffe Seminars. He kept on about point of view until finally I got the point. And he helped me understand how to make a character feel PRESENT(he called it 'presencing') on the page. My monster was my freshman English teacher at the otherwise exemplary Barnard College. He convinced me that I couldn't write.

  2. I'm not sure I've ever had a mentor. I have published friends who have taken notice and toss enough encouragement my way so I don't throw up my hands in frustration and run off screaming that my words are just so much dreck. I suppose my first one was my father. He taught me to love books, to set aside some dreaming time, and to believe in my imagination. My Muse is named Iffy. She has the temper of a two-year-old, the libido of a teenager, and the attention span of a Jack Russell Terrier on speed. She is the personification of my imagination--a most frightening place to be. Monsters? How trite to say my mother and brother? They were both "grounded"--dull people who believed that work wasn't something one did with their dreams.

    My biggest regret is that all passed from this life before I received my first contract (even though it's with a small press). Dad would have been proud. My mother and brother would be shocked and likely would have pointed out all the negative things...

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post this morning.

  3. Welcome, Elizabeth. Your book sounds wonderful.

    My main monster is my own distractability (this topic has been discussed in this blog previously): veering away from my writing to check email, facebook, google news, my son's blog, the weather, you name it! The curse of the Internet...

    My first mentor was my mother, who read all the hundreds of pages of stories and book reports I wrote as a child and told me I was a good writer. Wow - OK, I guess I am, I thought. And my father, who was always writing, including 12-page typed single-spaced letters to me when I lived in another state, and who encouraged me to do whatever I wanted with my life. I feel blessed by having those two as parents.


  4. Hi Elizabeth, welcome to JRW. What fun to have an idea, go to Amazon, and find it hasn't been done!

    I had two teachers, one in undergrad and one graduate school, who commented on what a good writer I was. I wasn't writing fiction at all and had no intention of ever doing so. But I carried those comments in my head for many years until the moment that I needed them. I also had a monstrous experience at a writing conference well before I was published. My assigned "mentor" missed two appointments with me that week (oversleeping, too much fun?) When we did meet, she made clear her lack of enthusiasm about anything I'd sent. It put me off writing for almost a year.

  5. Thanks to Hallie, Silver James, and MaxWriter for these wonderful responses to my conversation with Hallie. I'm delighted that this has kicked up so many memories in readers, just as I was to read the essays as they came in on the computer and see the emotion and care that went into the pieces. Silver James' mother's and brother's "monster" status reminds me of the dedication to Tobias Wolff's memoir, THIS BOY'S LIFE. "To my stepfather, who said that what I didn't know could fill a book. Here it is." His mentor was Raymond Carver, whom he's written about. I asked him to contribute to 3Ms, but he said he felt he'd said what he'd needed to already.

    I hope conversations like these help us remember turning points in our lives - when we realized we could do things that we never imagined we could do. And remember the people who noticed us and saw that in us. It's such a powerful moment.

  6. Roberta -- THank you! I was writing my comment when you were writing yours, and our paths overlapped. A sincere compliment about someone's talent goes a very very very long way, just as a cheap put down does too, but in the other direction. Here's a famous story that I've heard from quite a few people but even though the writer in question is deceased, I will leave out his name. He taught writing at a top university and was himself a noted novelist, and hilariously funny. A young woman was graduating and in saying goodbye to him, mentioned that she was going to get married very soon. Said the famous writer: "I hope you f*** better than you write." There are also stories of teachers who reduce students to tears who think there is nothing bad about that. My skin crawls to think of the damage these people do. There oughta be a law.

  7. Claire Carmichael, instructor at the UCLA Writers Extension in Los Angeles, is still my mentor. I submitted 75 awful pages to her Master Class and was stunned when I got accepted. She saw "potential" and that word just kept me going. I'm writing my 4th book now and still attend the odd UCLA class. I value and appreciate the support of the group enormously. As for monsters - I have a few. I locked them in a closet and when I finally give up my day job, that's when I feel I can let them out!

  8. My first mentor was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Hooper. Although I was painfully shy, she encouraged me to read my stories in front of the class. When I got my first laugh, I was hooked!

    And I'd also like to add my gratitude for those of you who are paying forward the encouragement and knowledge you received from your mentors--Elizabeth through her book; Hallie, Roberta, and Susan Hubbard through their Seascape Writing Retreat, which I had the great fortune to attend a few weeks ago.

    I learned so much from each of them, but in the "pay it forward" category, I have to say that when Hallie showed me the problem I was having with point of view and how to fix it, the floodgates opened for me. I feel like I took a giant step forward in my writing.

    I'm looking forward to reading your book, Elizabeth, as well as the opportunity to pay-it-forward myself some day.

  9. Thanks so much to Hannah and Tracy for their wonderful stories. It's really gratifying to see how people respond to this invitation to think about their mentors and monsters. And to remember what specific people said and did that made such a difference. I sometimes have the experience that a student I taught years before will write to me and say, "when you told me X, that made such a difference," and I can't remember what I told them. Teachers (potential mentors) have such power - to use well or not well. Here's hoping for the best. Thanks again for sharing your memories.