Want a Mentor?: Be Careful What You Wish For

by | June 18, 2013 | General | 7 comments

by Donna George Storey

Back in 1983, when I’d just finished writing a novella as part of my creative writing certificate in college, my older sister (who knows everything and more specifically everything I should do to be a true success in life) told me with confidence that what I now needed to make real progress in my writing was a mentor.

My resistance to the idea was practical rather than philosophical. There wasn’t anyone around who seemed at all interested in becoming my mentor. My thesis adviser, Stephen Koch, was a pleasant enough fellow. He’d been assigned six of us creative writing seniors to shepherd through a year of independent literary effort, but he didn’t show any desire to go above and beyond his professional duty, at least as far as I was concerned. I assumed that I wasn’t talented or special enough to merit a mentor. Convinced I had nothing interesting to say, I stopped writing for thirteen years after graduation. When I took it up again, I relied on the help of a writing group of peers to improve my craft (see Garce’s very useful post on peer critiques, which are indeed invaluable to a writer).

Still, I was mildly envious whenever I heard of anyone with the good luck to connect with a mentor. It seemed the easiest way to realize the greatest dream of every aspiring writer—the literary establishment’s crown of “exciting new American voice,” which meant of course that one would be worshipped unconditionally and live happily ever after.

I am envious no longer.

That’s because I just finished reading Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes. In the spring of 1989, thirty-two-year-old Grimes was your typical romantic starving artist, working as a waiter in Key West, when he got a phone call from Frank Conroy, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Conroy adored the novel excerpt Grimes had sent with his application and said he would do anything to entice him to join the program. Not that Grimes needed enticement. All the other programs he’d applied to, including his local safety school, had rejected him flat.

When he arrived in Iowa, Grimes found that he was already famous as the “guy who was writing the baseball novel.” Conroy had raved about it to anyone who would listen, although it meant most students kept their distance from the rising literary genius. The first day of class, Conroy invited Grimes to his office and offered to introduce him to his agent, New York’s best, Candida Donadio, with the implication that Donadio would snap him up (ah, how often have aspiring writers emailed me asking me to introduce them to my agent—alas, I have none). Grimes asked for a rain check, but he did come to rely on Conroy’s support and favor in class and out, for example, accepting a chance to observe the Mets’ spring training as research for his novel thanks to Conroy’s friendship with the manager. When the long-awaited baseball novel was finished, Donadio passed the project to her assistant, but the novel received bids from every major literary publisher in New York. Grimes’ novel had gone to auction—every writer’s wet dream.

Unfortunately, any published writer of modest experience will recognize the cruel realities that soon brought the dream crashing back to earth. Grimes’ agent pressured him to make a decision on his publishing house in fifteen minutes on a Friday afternoon to be polite to the editors—unfortunately Conroy was not available to give his mentorly advice at the time, which doubtless would have been to resist the agent’s pressure and think things through. Grimes went with the editor who seemed most genuinely enthusiastic about his book, not a bad choice in any case, but a better one still because it was clear that some of the other editors were more excited about Conroy’s sponsorship than the work itself.

Predictably, the enthusiastic editor soon changed houses and the next editor assigned to the book also left during a merger. The orphaned book languished, got tepid reviews and didn’t even rate a paperback edition. The world apparently did not share Conroy’s opinion of Grimes’ talent—or was it just bad luck and bad marketing? Determined to soldier on, Grimes had a standing offer for his next book from one of the other prestigious publishers he’d turned down but the man died before the novel was ready. That book, too, was published with disappointing results. In the meantime, Grimes was hired to direct Texas State University’s creative writing program, again with strong recommendation from Conroy. Despite his initial reluctance to follow his mentor on this path, the program flourished and now hires some of America’s most acclaimed writers like Tim O’Brien (although Grimes still has to shore up O’Brien’s confidence at times by reminding him he wrote one of America’s greatest books, The Things They Carried, which makes me wonder if any writer is truly at peace with his achievement). But in spite of those impressive credentials, Grimes feels like a failure as a writer and is much humbled by his experiences since he arrived full of hope at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Yet the literary establishment is ever full of irony. Denied his dream of a starred Publisher’s Weekly review for his first three novels, Grimes’ memoir about his relationship with Conroy finally earned him that coveted honor.

Although he probbly still isn’t living happily ever after. Just a hunch.

So what does this have to do with erotica writers?

Well, while my illusions about my life as a writer have been eroding for many years now, Mentor reminded me of the dangers of putting ambition and a belief in the importance of external validation before the pleasures and challenges of the writing itself. Apparently I still need to be reminded—not because I believe I will ever become the Chosen One, America’s first woman writer to be lauded as the greatest writer of our time—but because I still nurtured the fantasy that someone else might attain that lofty position with ease and grace due to her transcendent talent and possibly the help of a devoted mentor. Grimes also reminded me that a mentor serves his own needs as much as his protege’s. In spite of the best intentions, a mentor’s attention might well become a burden and a hindrance to the younger writer’s development. Lucky breaks and grand successes always come with a cost.

Besides, for all of us who do not have a mentor, we still have a wonderful option. We can immerse ourselves in the magic of telling a good story and explore all the ways the English language can help us in our cause just by sitting down at our computers and giving our imaginations free rein. With this simple act, we can live a dream no person or random twist of fate can destroy.

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

Donna George Storey

I want to change the world one dirty story at a time. When I posted this mission statement on my website, I hoped my cheeky ambition would make my readers smile. I smile every time I read it myself. And yet I’m totally serious. I truly believe that writers who are brave enough to speak their truth about the erotic experience in all its complexity—the yearning, the pleasure, the conflicts, and the sweet satisfaction—do change the world for the better. So if you’re here at ERWA because you’re already writing erotica, a big thank you and keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’re more a reader than a writer, I encourage you to start dreaming and writing and expressing the truth and magic of this fundamental part of the human experience in your own unique voice. Can there be a more pleasurable way to change the world? I'm the author of Amorous Woman, a semi-autobiographical erotic novel set in Japan, The Mammoth Book of Erotica Presents the Best of Donna George Storey  and nearly 200 short stories and essays in journals and anthologies. Check out my Facebook author page at: https://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor/  


  1. Kathleen Bradean

    Someone to ease your way sounds nice. That probably only happens in literary fiction, since the rest of us are lucky to get an agent's attention.

  2. Donna

    I sense there are people out there looking for an easy way in erotica, too, an introduction to editors with glowing endorsement, etc. Could E.L. James get us a juicy contract if she felt so moved to intercede on our behalf? I suppose in a way we are protected from that judgment because most agents don't want to sully themselves with erotica (erotic romance being different?)

  3. Kathleen Bradean

    I'm laughing a little at this, since erotica has to be one of the most welcoming genres out there. (Romance is good that way too. Sometimes I wish I wrote it just for the benefits of the amazing community developed around it) But it's the access to agents and big publishers I suppose writers are trying to wrangle from other writers. I know a few well-established writers as friends, but none have offered to speak to their agents about me, and I don't feel like using them that way. Maybe I'm not ruthless enough? I suppose if I felt an agent would help my 'career' then I'd hint around a bit.

  4. Lisabet Sarai

    I've never suffered from this fantasy. But then, I never seriously considered being a writer as a career, even though I was moderately confident that I wrote well. Being published was almost an accident.

    In any case, I suspect that the days in which having a famous mentor or a well-known agent would guarantee success are simply gone. The internet, social media and ebooks have leveled the playing field in ways that would have been impossible to imagine a decade or so ago.

    Kathleen, I agree that erotica and erotic romance authors are remarkably supportive of one another. Do you think that authors of literary fiction are very different in this regard?

  5. Kathleen Bradean

    Argh! I wrote a long reply to this that got lost to the aether!

    My summary was something like this:

    I suspect most writers aren't truly confident that they were published on the merit of their work alone. I think we all secretly suspect fate had the biggest hand in it. How can we possibly help another writer find their way when we're never sure exactly what alignment of stars shone on us at the exact right moment?

  6. Lisabet Sarai

    No one is published on the merit of their work alone. Anyone who thinks that luck has no part in her success is deceiving herself.

    Flipping this, though, we can conclude that a failure to be wildly successful in publishing is not necessarily a comment on our talent, hard work or any other intrinsic quality. Knowing the right person, being in the right place in the right time, the mood of the editor when she picks up your MS from the slush pile – there are all sorts of random factors that determine your publishing outcomes that have nothing to do with how good a writer you may happen to be.

  7. Donna

    Agreed, there is clearly no reliable link between quality of writing and "success"–not that you can rely on anyway.

    It does seem that erotica and erotic romance writers are more supportive of each other. Based on my limited experience, many literary writers seem to feel the amount of acclaim is fixed and they all have to struggle for their slice of it. Or it could be that since we're outsiders, we have to stick together?

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