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03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mentors, Muses & Monsters

The response to my invitation was overwhelming. In a matter of weeks one fiction writer after another [in emails, on the phone and in person] said "Yes", they wanted to contribute to what was then an idea for an anthology on fiction writers and their mentors. Some days I would hear from two or three or four people, saying "Yes", count me in. Of course, I was delighted -- and slightly flabbergasted by the wellspring of enthusiasm. I seemed to have hit a nerve.

Several knew right away whom they wanted to write about -- Mary Gordon on Elizabeth Hardwick and Janice Thaddeus, Jay Cantor on Bernard Malamud, Lily Tuck on Gordon Lish, Jim Shepard on John Hawkes -- but quite a few said yes without knowing their subject. Early on, Jonathan Safran Foer was deciding from among Joyce Carol Oates, with whom he studied at Princeton, the artist Joseph Cornell, and the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai. Early on, Margot Livesey wasn't sure whether to choose her adopted father or a long dead muse.

In saying "Yes" before they had settled on a subject, I picked up in writers' voices and in their emails a yearning to acknowledge and to thank the people who had made a landmark difference in their lives -- to recognize them the best way a fiction writer can, by telling the story of their association.

Because most of these encounters occurred when the writers were young and vulnerable -- uncertain about their identities and what they were capable of -- some of the pieces have a sweetly aching quality, and nearly all of them express abiding gratitude. But sweetly aching or not, a good many of the writers are looking back at themselves at a tender age when something powerful happened to them, a moment when an authority figure saw talent in them, or when they came to believe they possessed it themselves -- and their wobbly lives changed direction and velocity. They knew, in a way they hadn't before, where they were headed, and what is more potent and moving than that? It's like being rescued. No, it is being rescued -- from uncertainty, indecision, mediocrity.

Life brings us emotional experiences to compete with that one in intensity, but the others invariably involve romance, children, family ties, two-sided associations that inevitably become messy, fraught, downright imperfect. But the feelings of gratitude a student or supplicant usually has for a mentor have an aura of purity about them -- uncluttered, unalloyed gratitude -- that's absent from most other intense relationships.

It's fitting that we idealize our mentors. They are more accomplished than we are; they are in a position to bestow feelings of worth on us that carry more weight in the real world than praise from even the most ardent parents. Their praise counts for something out there -- and because of that, it also counts in here, where we live and work and proceed with nothing but whatever talent we possess, whatever nerve we can summon, and the knowledge that the only way to get to Carnegie Hall, or its literary equivalent, is practice, practice, practice -- which is to say, write, rewrite, rewrite.

Mentors are our role models, our own private celebrities, people we emulate, fall in love with, and sometimes stalk -- by reading their books compulsively. In her essay on Alice Munro, Cheryl Strayed writes, "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." When things go well, we are the beneficiaries of our mentors' best selves, not just their admirable writing but the prescient insights that divine talent in us before we know it's there ourselves.

Alongside the mentor's noticing us, much of the force of our feelings is revealed in how much energy we invest in noticing the mentor -- but what would you expect from writers obsessed with other writers? Obsession is an occupational hazard. Or do I mean an occupational necessity? In his essay on Annie Dillard, Alexander Chee writes, "By the time I was done studying with Annie, I wanted to be her." When she was in her twenties, Sigrid Nunez lived with her boyfriend and his mother -- Susan Sontag. In her essay, "Sontag's Rules," in crystalline detail, she remembers Sontag's elaborate rules for living the life of a writer and intellectual -- and Nunez names each rule she adopted for herself.

In the more complicated case of Maud Casey, whose influences are the writers John Casey and Jane Barnes -- who happen to be her parents -- she admits that as a child, she imagined that she would grow up to be her parents, and that until she went to graduate school she could not read a novel, any novel, without hearing their voices in her head.

Not all writers have quite such complicated relationships with their mentors. John Casey, father of Maud, had a collegial relationship with Peter Taylor after they met while Casey was a law student taking a creative writing class on the side. Julia Glass writes a glowing paean to her long-time book editor and muse, Deb Garrison.

Carolyn See honors an unlikely pair of influences, an English professor whose lectures on poetry she attended for three weeks when she was twenty, and her beloved, eccentric father, who had always yearned to be a serious writer; the closest he came was writing seventy-three books of pornography near the end of his life.

Joyce Carol Oates answered my invitation by telling me that her mentors had been Emily Dickinson and Ernest Hemingway and several contemporary writers she had never known. I replied that it would be fine to write about mentors of that kind -- to which Oates replied with an essay far more ambitious and illuminating.

Other writers arrived with more unconventional sources of inspiration. The distinguished critic Robert Boyers, who found his fictional voice at fifty, is indebted to the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, because of his poet wife's connection to her. Evelyn Toynton, an American who lives in England, recalls the sorrows of her beloved handicapped mother, who showered Toynton and her sister with books and stories about English kings and queens when they were sorrowful children in New York City. Arnon Grunberg's literary awakening as a high school drop-out in Amsterdam is so exotic -- and funny and heartbreaking -- that I am loath to try to summarize it in a sentence. Edmund White's scathing portrait of the late Harold Brodkey, set in gay New York in the 1970s, provides the anthology its single full-blown "monster."

Like Joyce Carol Oates, a number of writers felt they had been mentored not by people but by specific books. Samantha Hunt, Denis Johnson, Z.Z. Packer, Anita Shreve, and Martha Southgate offer not only their lucid memories of encountering these works but a booklist you're not likely to find anywhere else: The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, Fat City by Leonard Gardner, the short stories of James Alan McPherson, That Night by Alice McDermott, and Harriet the Spy, respectively. Michael Cunningham, who identifies Virginia Woolf as his muse, wrote about the lifelong companionship Mrs. Dalloway has given him, "a devastating if one-way friendship" that led him to write The Hours when he was in his forties.

Another group of writers had something entirely different in mind in response to my invitation. Five people wanted to write about institutions or extended periods of their lives that had changed everything -- altered their ambitions, rearranged their sense of who they were, what they were capable of, and what they wanted. Jane Smiley dove back into her first year as a graduate student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, 1974, and the influence of her classmates, including Allan Gurganus. Christopher Castellani examined what nine summers at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference have meant to him. Neil Gordon recollected two transformative years as an editor's assistant at the New York Review of Books. Dinaw Mengestu, born in Ethiopia and raised outside Chicago, ran an after-school program in Harlem while he licked his wounds at not being able to sell his novel. Caryl Phillips, born in St. Kitts, raised in Leeds, England, and now a professor of writing at Yale, takes a long look backwards, isolating moments that moved him in the direction of a literary life.

The anthology came into being in March, 2008, hours after I submitted an essay for Tin House on my mentor, Elizabeth Hardwick, who had died three months before and with whom I had had a senior tutorial at Barnard College in the 1970s. I remember walking through my apartment, feeling especially content, not only at having finished the piece, but at having dwelled on that distant time before I knew what I would do with myself. I had ended up in Miss Hardwick's office every two weeks during my last semester, at the end of which -- well, she liked my work. Liked it well enough to say so, which was well enough to keep me going for the next nine years until I finished and sold my first novel. A little praise from the right person can go a very long way.

There must be a collection somewhere of writers on the subject of their mentors, I said to myself, and I went to Amazon.com. But it was not many minutes before I saw that there isn't one. The very next day, armed with my title -- Mentors, Muses, and Monsters -- I started making inquiries. The first person I asked, Mary Gordon, said Yes right away.

Though this may be the only collection of essays about writers and their mentors, the history of literature and of every other art overflows with stories about mentors, muses, and influential monsters, about institutions that have produced extraordinary talents and about decades (Vienna in the 1890s, Paris in the 1920s) when geniuses collided and changed the course of history.

In the 1780s, Mozart wrote six string quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn, considered the father of the string quartet, and whose work Mozart had begun studying at the age of six. In 1785, after hearing the six quartets, Haydn made a now famous remark to Mozart's father: "Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition."

Would Mozart have been Mozart without Haydn's influence? Would Shakespeare have been Shakespeare without Plutarch's Lives? Jonathan Safran Foer claims in his essay, "The Snow Globe" that had he not had gone to Yehuda Amichi's reading as a high school student visiting Israel, he might never have become a writer. Anita Shreve is certain that had she not read Alice McDermott's novel That Night at the moment she did, she "would not be a novelist today." I find it impossible to accept that all this talent might never have flourished had it not been for a chance encounter or a single book. Surely it would have found expression sooner or later, in one form or another -- wouldn't it? In any case, the essays are about what did happen, and in its own way, each is a celebration of that potent elixir made up of influence and serendipity.

I knew these essays would be good when I asked this extraordinary group of writers to embark on them, but I could never have imagined just how good they would be, until they began arriving in my computer. Here's what I think happened: Given the chance to thank the people, living and dead, who changed their lives -- and to remember times and places when magic happened and influence of all kinds put down roots -- these writers made the decision to write their hearts out and let us in on stories they have carried around for years.

Writers can be a grumpy, cantankerous bunch, self-involved, high strung, hostile to authority, annoyed, sometimes, if they have to leave the house. But it turns out that if you ask them to remember who gave them the idea to write or the permission or the encouragement, ask them to remember the voice that said, "You can do this, and here's how," whether it was a human voice or the voice of an author speaking from the page of a book, there's a good chance they'll tell you a story that just might take your breath away.

This is a slightly revised version of the introduction to Elizabeth Benedict's anthology, Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, published by Free Press/Simon & Schuster, on Oct. 27th.