An illuminating account of a writer’s life under the tutelage of another writer.
Today, Frank Conroy (1936–2005) is not read as much as he should be, but his harrowing memoir Stop-Time (1967) was required reading among aspiring writers for decades. Though he didn’t publish much thereafter, Conroy became the head of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and had trained a generation of teachers, novelists and poets by the time Grimes (Creative Writing/Texas State Univ.; City of God, 1995, etc.) arrived in Iowa City. That arrival seemed unlikely at first. After Conroy snubbed Grimes, then working as a waiter, at a Key West literary gathering, Grimes responded by tearing up a copy of Conroy’s book. Yet Conroy, whose gruffness masked a certain reserve, turned out to be a generous teacher, awarding an already accomplished Grimes a fellowship and a coveted place in seminars—favors fraught with peril in the Hobbesian political world of the university. Some of Grimes’s education took place in smoky bars over many drinks, for “Frank ignored warnings about high cholesterol, got drunk nightly, and couldn’t write without a cigarette.” Yet that education was thorough and grounded, and what Grimes tells of it—lessons that might be condensed into the credo, Pay attention—will be of benefit to any aspiring writer, though no substitute for reading voraciously and writing unforgivingly. Grimes delivers an eloquent portrait of the writer’s life, which is often solitary and difficult—though, despite his own history, not necessarily mired in madness (Prozac helped). The author writes self-effacingly, and sometimes quite humorously, as when he reveals the incestuous logrolling of academic writers—you teach my book, and I’ll blurb yours—and the mechanics of the publishing world (as one insider scolds him, “The next time you get an offer from Farrar, Straus, take it”).
Without wasting a word, Grimes presents a thoroughly readable view of how stories—and writers, at least of a certain kind—are made.