I didn't plan to write Mentor: A Memoir
. This is what happened. Tin House
magazine publishes a feature called "Writers on Writers." Yiyun Li
wrote about William Trevor
's influence on her work. Anthony Doerr
wrote about Alice Munro
. One day, while I was talking with Tin House
Executive Editor Lee Montgomery
, she said, off the cuff, "You should write about Frank." She was referring to Frank Conroy
, whom I'd known since 1989 when I first entered the Iowa Writers Workshop. I said, "Okay, I'll send you three pages. If you like them, I'll keep going. If you don't, I'll stop." A day after I emailed the pages, Lee called and said, "This isn't what I meant, and this isn't what we'll publish in the magazine." I was supposed to have written about Frank's work, not about him. But within a few sentences, a comparison between my father and Frank had worked its way into the essay. Lee added, "But I don't think you should stop. You might have a book." Surprised, I said, "Okay, I'll write the essay separately and keep writing whatever I'd begun."
The essay was published in Tin House's 2009 Summer Reading Issue. By then I was 200 pages into what I called "the Frank book." I thought I was writing a memoir about him, not about him and me. I needed to cover 16 years, but I knew the book couldn't be long. I needed to compress as much as possible and chisel every sentence until only what was necessary remained. This saved me from self-absorption. Also, I was able to depict more events than I realized. When I finished, I had 75,000 words and nearly 200 scenes combined with expository narrative.
When I read the book's first draft, I thought it was okay. But, I told my friend Charles D'Ambrosio, I felt disappointed. Plus, I'd come across 30 pages in which Frank didn't appear. I thought, "That's odd." Once Charlie had read the draft, he said, "It's your story. Frank is simply a part of it. A large part, but not the only part." Acting on his advice, I found the book's central problem: I hadn't answered the rhetorical questions I'd posed. The toughest one was, "For 20 years, have I misunderstood my life?" The answer was yes. Once I answered this question I found the book's core, and my sense of failure was at the center of it.
If I'd consciously set out to write a memoir about my life as a writer, I likely would have produced a diligent but shallow piece of work — competent but not revelatory. But, by beginning the memoir by accident, I focused on discovery, rather than recollection. And, by luck, I stumbled onto a somewhat universal emotion, which is that in one way or another, most of us consider ourselves failures. Now that the book has been published, I've learned that many of us also have had a "mentor." So it was chance that led me where I needed to go, rather than where I would have gone, and that, I believe, made all the difference.