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Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their… (2009)
por Elizabeth Benedict (Editor)
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"Mentors, Muses & Monsters" was a gift from a friend. I opened it at random, read several essays and called to thank him saying, "These are great! They've knocked my socks off!"
The book, edited by Elizabeth Benedict, presents "30 writers on the people who changed their lives." It's a mix of (to me) familiar and unknown authors/ male & female, young & old. I read at random and now must catch those I missed.
(An example of depth:
Carolyn See, in "The Scholars and the Pornographer" praises her mentors Dame Helen Gardner and George Newton Bolin Laws; presents an unvarnished portrait of her father and gives readers an appreciation of John Espey.)
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.
Elizabeth Benedict assembles thirty writers who tell of the biggest influence on their lives, either persons, books, or events.
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Sistema Decimal Melvil (DDC)810.9 — Literature English (North America) American literature History and criticism of American literature
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This is a collection of intimate, revealing glimpses into the experiences that have encouraged writers, mostly young, to persevere. There is nothing glamorous in their contributions, just ordinariness and honesty. Some cite the impact of direct interactions with teachers, parents, friends, editors and fellow writers. Others describe more distant influences, as in a book read or a body of work by a revered author. The authors of these essays seem exceptional, not for their early displays of talent, but for the resolve with which they set forth on their writing paths, their determination nurtured by even the smallest moments of encouragement.
Elizabeth Benedict has a senior tutorial with Elizabeth Hardwick, whose mentorship seems to be largely contained in just a few words: “I think you can do the work,” she said kindly, “but you have to decide if you want such a hard life.”
As a graduate student, Robert Boyers receives a note from an editor in response to a poetry submission, saying ”You’re obviously very bright, …but I would recommend that you try something else.” That advice would discourage him from writing fiction until when nearly fifty, he is strongly affected by the work of the Italian writer, Natalia Ginzburg.
The Dutch author, Arnon Grunberg, credits his writing career to having dropped out of high school after locking himself in the bathroom for hours to convince his parents of his seriousness. An aptitude test rates him as having below average language skills and an attempt to develop an acting career quickly fizzles, before a friendship formed in ballet class leads him finally to literature and writing.
Sigrid Nunez lived for a time with her boyfriend in the home of his mother, Susan Sontag, from whom she learned the 'rules' of writing and life.
In her mid-20s, Cheryl Strayed receives an unexpected letter of encouragement from Alice Munro and dreams of meeting her, yet when the opportunity presents, is unable to form the words and simply walks away.
Despite having been an editor and a publisher, Joyce Carol Oates’ husband rarely read her work, whether published or in-progress. No one is comfortable when others perceive, or believe they can perceive, the wellsprings of their “art” amid the unremarkable detritus of life.
Contained within the essays are also little gems of writing advice gleaned from teachers and mentors.
Annie Dillard’s advice to Alexander Chee:
Remember that adverbs are a sign that you’ve used the wrong verb. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader.
You can invent the details that don’t matter…At the edges. You cannot invent the details that matter.
Gordon Lish in a workshop attended by Lily Tuck:
“Your first sentence ordains your world; do not be trivial or petty. Nothing is worse than being trivial... As Joy Williams once said, ’The world makes everything taste like chicken. ‘ Own your first sentence, make it yours…Each sentence gives rise to the next sentence, each sentence owes everything to its predecessor. Reveal how elastic a sentence can be. Get into the habit of recasting sentences. Learn how to open up a sentence...
Do not proclaim….Instead, show the world being made…The more you feel the object you are rendering, the less you have to explain.…
You should never make claims of feelings in the first person if there is no irony….
Fiction…must create an argument, if not it is facile. Nothing is earned. Engage in an activity that is difficult for yourself and not merely an I reporting on itself.”
The worthiness of these essays lies in the simple pleasure of being introduced to a new author or learning more about a familiar one, while gaining a sense of them as individuals. I would recommend this collection to readers who are fascinated by ‘the person behind the author’. ( )