Mentors and proteges; A manner of being
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 23 February 2016)

Jay Parini once asked his friend and mentor, Gore Vidal, a question about a possibly tedious passage in the novel Parini was writing. He wanted to know whether he could get away with 20 or 30 pages of a conversation in which two characters discuss the philosophy of Kierkegaard. Vidal answered: "You can do that. But only if these two characters are sitting in a railway car, and the reader knows there is a bomb under the seat."

Today Parini remembers those words as perhaps the best literary advice he ever received. It taught him "You can do anything if there is an appropriate dramatic context. But you must put the bomb under the seat."

It's the sort of thing a mentor should tell you. Everybody knows it already but hearing it from a mentor makes it memorable.

Parini has written novels, poetry and biographies, most recently a biography of Vidal. He tells the story about the bomb under the seat in a delightful anthology, A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors (University of Massachusetts Press), edited by Jeff Parker and Annie Liontas.

For a long time, most writers, editors and critics believed in an iron law: You can't teach creative writing. Only a few universities tried to do it, and only one, the University of Iowa, acquired a reputation for it.

About three decades ago, academic and literary opinion changed. Today there are scores of writing courses across North America, settled in everything from obscure colleges to major-league universities like Columbia and Stanford. Agents and editors know all about them. Publishers are glad to consider the work of their graduates. They are now firmly embedded in the literary life.

A Manner of Being contains much literary gossip but also demonstrates that these writers and teachers of writing have become an international community. They have their standards, their heroes, and their triumphs over adversity. George Saunders, a writing-program graduate who is now a star of the New Yorker, recalls the years when he laboured in the uninspiring role of tech writer for a pharmaceutical firm. At one point it occurred to him that "not only will the world not mourn if I never write again, it would actually prefer it."

Most of their stories are more hopeful. The 70 writers in the book give us a compendium of cheerful gratitude for what mentors provided. They seem to believe that generosity is the quality that distinguishes the best of them. (That's also the characteristic Parini attributes to Vidal, though he says only Vidal's friends knew it.) The book is full of stories about teachers who connected students with agents or publishers, worked far beyond the demands of the job in their attentiveness to students, and managed somehow to make students believe they had a future in literature -- even when that seemed unlikely.

Douglas Unger, a novelist and for 30 years a teacher of writing, gave this book its awkward title when he applied a Spanish phrase, "manera de ser," to the successful teacher-student relationship. It translates into English as "a manner of being."

That's more important than formal instruction, Unger believes. Young writers bring away from their classes a clear opinion of their mentors as individuals. Working as a student with Richard Stern, John Irving and Raymond Carver, Unger learned it mattered most how they treated the people around them, especially students.

He says that John Irving sometimes showed his generosity by bringing rough drafts to class and discussing them with students. At one point he arrived with an early draft of The World According to Garp. This broke through the master-pupil relationship and reinforced a sense that students and teachers were all in this together.

Saunders, when he entered Syracuse University's creative-writing program in 1986, had never met anyone who had written a book. It was a revelation to him when he learned (partly through meeting Tobias Wolff ) that writers did not have to be dysfunctional human beings. Another teacher, Unger, demonstrated great enthusiasm for anything a student got right. A single good line was worthy of praise. Sometimes Unger found more than Saunders knew was there. "Often, hearing him talk about a story you didn't like, you start to like it too -- you see, as he is seeing, the seed of something good within it." Saunders found this emboldening, making him less defeatist about his work.

Sometimes the mentors are not officially teachers or writers. Diane Cook, now a much-published author of stories, was hired as an intern at This American Life, the superb program on public radio. The chief producer, Ira Glass, became her mentor. Glass has a natural narrative sense, the best in his business, and believes it's his job to tell interns and others how to tell stories.

Sheila Heti mentions a publicity manager at Random House in Toronto who took the 17-year-old Heti seriously enough to discuss her future. That mattered, Heti explains, because "A person needs only one figure of understanding in order to not feel they are a random, spinning particle in the universe." I especially liked a few words that Nick Flynn remembered from his work at New York University with Phillip Levine. When Flynn gave Levine a poem, Levine told him, "You have more light inside you than this." Levine looked him in the eye. Flynn felt as if someone had really seen who he was.

The idea that writing can't be taught was both right and wrong. Painting can't be taught either, but every day someone learns something from an art teacher. The same applies to writing. There are many things in writing that can be improved with the right intelligence and attention.

Today, good writers often emerge from writing workshops across the continent, having been taught by good writers. Reading of their retroactive excitement about professional education is catching. A Manner of Being is revealing, often touching, frequently joyful, adding up to evidence of an idea that worked.

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