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Writers' Valentines to Their Mentors

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This is not news: Writers are famously cranky, infamously jealous, hopelessly self-involved. But several years ago, I unleashed a whole lot of gratitude and love in a group of wonderful writers.

It happened like this: In 2008, hours after writing a tribute for Tin House to one of my writing mentors who had recently died, Elizabeth Hardwick, with whom I studied at Barnard, I did some research online and saw there was there was an important volume missing from the shelves: stories about writers and their mentors -- The people who encouraged us, prodded us, gave us the crazy idea that we could become the cranky, jealous, self-involved people we've become. There was no such book, no such collection, and only one memoir about a mentor, Alex Wilkinson's about William Maxwell.

Within an hour, I came up with a title I thought would encompass as many kinds of stories from fiction writers as might be out there: Mentors, Muses and Monsters. I liked the alliteration, and I liked the idea that not all the people who helped us were angels, and not all the stories should be sugarcoated. I knew a story or two about mentors who became, over time, monsters. My criteria for contributors: they had to have published at least one work of fiction, and had to know a thing or three about writing essays. Cheryl Strayed's two astonishing essays in Best American Essays convinced me to ask her. (And what a good idea that turned out to be! She earned a Pushcart Prize and a Notable Mention in the Best American Essays 2010 for her essay on Alice Munro. Maud Casey's piece on her parents, including John Casey, was also a Notable in 2010.)

Within weeks of issuing invites, I had several dozen writers who wanted to tell a story. But the categories didn't break down as I had anticipated. Many had stories of people to tell. Others had books and unmet writers to thank. And several had experiences, jobs, periods in their lives that made the difference.

Jonathan Safran Foer wanted to acknowledge Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Sigrid Nunez wanted to remember Susan Sontag, with whom she lived in her twenties while dating Sontag's son. Jay Cantor had studied with Bernard Malamud, and Alexander Chee with Annie Dillard. Jane Smiley was eager to thank her Iowa Writers' Workshop classmates, among them, Allan Gurganus. John Casey had Peter Taylor, who told him while he was a Harvard law student that he should forget lawyering and become a writer -- much to the chagrin of Casey's parents.

Months later, with a deadline and a contract from Free Press/Simon & Schuster, the essays began to appear in my computer, and I still remember how dazzled I was to read so many of them. I knew the pieces would be good, but had no idea how good they would be and how seriously each writer would take this assignment. As the pile grew larger and richer (to name a a handful: Michael Cunningham on Virginia Woolf, Joyce Carol Oates on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lily Tuck on Gordon Lish, Dinaw Mengestu on running an after-school program in Harlem, Carolyn See on her pornographer father) I realized that these essays fell into a category of their own.

The gratitude each writer wanted to convey, the recollection of life before and after the mentor's influence, the unique value of a person or a moment that altered the course of our lives, that gave us purpose and a particular kind of nerve -- all of this intensity asked something special of the writers. The meaning and complexity of these people and events asked the writers to devote their best story-telling selves to the task. Each seemed determined to write a piece as powerful as the experience itself.

Each is a love letter, even those that end with a sprinkle of hard feelings, the hint, and sometimes more, of the monster. And I'm honored to have brought this book and these wonderful essays -- these complicated Valentine's to teachers, writers, to books themselves -- into being.

This essay also appears on Caroline Leavitt's blog.

Elizabeth Benedict is a bestselling novelist, journalist, and coach. Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives has just been published in paperback. She's the author five novels, including Almost, and of The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers.