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Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 27, 2009
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Even when writing teacher Benedict is writing fiction, she’s writing about writing—her novel Almost (2001) is about a best-selling novelist. So the subject of this irresistible anthology was a natural for her. People become writers by virtue of literary inspiration, be it a book, a place, or a mentor, so why not invite writers to write essays about their literary influences? The response was overwhelming and avid. Benedict reports, “I seemed to have hit a nerve.” What’s more, these exceptionally animated essays feel as though the writers couldn’t get the words down quickly enough. And what an array of experiences and voices. Mary Gordon remembers Elizabeth Hardwick. Sigrid Nunez shares vivid memories of Susan Sontag. Joyce Carol Oates ponders the “singular” book of her childhood, Alice in Wonderland. Carolyn See portrays her father, who at age 69 began writing hard-core pornography. Julia Glass, Dinaw Mengestu, Caryl Phillips, Jane Smiley, Jonathan Safran Foer––all share profound and moving tales of transformation that encapsulate the entire collective experience of literature, a living force tapped into, handed down, cherished. --Donna Seaman
"Even when writing teacher Benedict is writing fiction, she's writing about writing.... So the subject of this irresistible anthology was a natural for her. People become writers by virtue of literary inspiration, be it a book, a place, or a mentor, so why not invite writers to write essays about their literary influences? The response was overwhelming and avid.... these exceptionally animated essays feel as though the writers couldn't get the words down quickly enough. And what an array of experiences and voices." -- Booklist
"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. [Mentors, Muses & Monsters] 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." -- The Christian Science Monitor
"Every one of the essays here -- from Benedict's own remembrance of Elizabeth Hardwick to Christopher Castellani's "Coming of Age at Breadloaf" is wise and full of heart." -- Chicago Tribune
"Michael Cunningham relates his discovery of Mrs. Dalloway, the happy result of failing to impress a girl during high school.... Joyce Carol Oates tells us that she had no mentor but books.... And in terrific essays on the New York Review of Books and the Iowa Writers Workshop, Neil Gordon and Jane Smiley give us a sense...of how institutions conspire to turn ordinary human beings into award-winning authors." -- Bookforum (Robert P. Baird Nov. 5)
"Enthralling.... [a] lovingly compiled collection of essays." -- The Errant Aesthete
"This anthology is that rare gem, a collection whose whole is greater, even, than the sum of its parts. Where else could you read musings-about-muses, accompanied by juicy tales from deep inside the writing life, by 30 of the best minds of our generation, all between the covers of one book?" -- The San Francisco Chronicle
"The essays are not simply worshipful tributes to literary lions. Each writer shades in the nuances of character and experience that make his subject come to life, and each reads like a short story.... For the reader aspiring to sharpen his own craft, gem after gem emerges from this book's pages.... I haven't finished reading all the essays. In truth, I am reluctant to complete it, so deliciously rich and illuminating have I found each offering. I suspect any writer or serious reader will feel the same way." -- MV Times
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Jay Cantor, in his selection called "Fathers," affectionately recalls taking a class at Harvard with Bernard Malamud who became a mentor to him. Cantor's own father wanted his son to become a doctor and was never receptive to his son's literary aspirations. Cantor describes how Malamud encouraged him to become a writer: "What Bern's moral imperatives offered me was a way to turn the thing I wanted to do into the thing that I was kind of in a way required to do. He helped me make the enterprise of writing moral, the sort of thing a grown-up should do."
I think one of the most compelling pieces in this collection is Cheryl Strayed's "Munro Country." Strayed hero-worshiped Alice Munro as a writer and once received a personal letter from Munro praising a story Strayed had sent her, unsolicited. Munro's letter said, referring to the story, "... I wouldn't have changed a hair on its head." Strayed had such ardent longing and admiration for Munro that she sounded like a child seeking her lost mother. At long last, Strayed traveled to see Munro at a public appearance and reading in Manhattan at a New Yorker Festival, although Munro did not know she was coming. Strayed sat transfixed and weeping in the audience during the reading. While she stood in line to greet Munro, she rehearsed all the things she might say. Then, when her time came to greet the author she realized that she would not speak to her, that the entire relationship and all the longing had been built up inside herself and had no real bearing on the flesh and blood woman sitting in front of her. Strayed wrote, "... there was both too much and nothing to say. I gave her a small wave and then shifted my eyes and walked away."
If you enjoy literary biography, this collection is a treasure for learning how writers become who and what they are.
I wonder who all those Smiths are that the editor lists as her mentors and muses. I yearn to read the essay about them.