Editor Benedict (The Practice of Deceit, 2005, etc.) presents a collection of 30 pieces by writers of varying ability, accomplishment and fame who recount “a moment when an authority figure saw talent in them, or when they came to believe they possessed it themselves.”
A couple of the weaker essays are by contributors who prate and prance (John Casey) or who make certain that we know that a mentor once called their writing wonderful (Julia Glass). Not all memories are in soft focus. Mary Gordon recalls an unkind cut from Elizabeth Hardwick that resulted in a 21-year estrangement. Edmund White writes wryly and eloquently about ambivalence, focusing on the prickly-pear personality of Harold Brodkey, who once raged that Updike had stolen his persona and plopped him into The Witches of Eastwick as the diabolical Daryl Van Horne. The most appealing pieces are reflective and self-deprecating. Michael Cunningham summons a moment from high school when an unusual adolescent girl told him he was stupid and that he should read Virginia Woolf ASAP. Alexander Chee, remembering Annie Dillard, notes that great teachers help you see the path you’re already on. Several writers confess to falling in love with other writers (mostly from afar). Cheryl Strayed wept when she finally heard Alice Munro at a reading. Samantha Hunt says she felt flayed by the words of Breece D’J Pancake. Joyce Carol Oates shines with her realization that she’s never had an actual mentor (her late husband, she reveals, rarely read her fiction); instead, she’s had colleagues she’s admired (John Gardner) and books she’s loved. Several contributors, Oates among them, write about formative books from childhood (are we surprised that she liked Poe?). Jane Smiley gets the last word in a sharp-edged piece about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1970s, noting that “desire sparks imagination, imagination generates details, details take you from the beginning to the end.”
A mixture of pompous braying and insightful, quiet moments of magic.