Mentors, Muses and Monsters
A new fascination. And a wonderful read by Alexander Chee out of The Morning News entitled “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life.” Part of an enthralling new book due out later this month, Mentors, Muses and Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives.
I spent a few wonderfully self-absorbed moments this morning reading Chee’s essay from first word to last describing his days as a student in Annie Dillard’s Literary Nonfiction class at Wesleyan University in 1989, and wanted to spend the next three days curled up in a huge overstuffed chair by the fire while the rains rage on in the northwest as they are wont to do this time of year.
Dear Annie Dillard,
My name is Alexander Chee, and I’m a senior English major. I’ve taken Fiction 1 with Phyllis Rose and Advanced Fiction with Kit Reed, and last summer, I studied with Mary Robison and Toby Olson at the Bennington Writers Workshop. The stories here are from a creative writing thesis I’m currently writing with Professor Bill Stowe as my adviser. But the real reason I’m applying to this class is that whenever I tell people I go to Wesleyan, they ask me if I’ve studied with you, and I’d like to have something better to say than no.
Thanks for your time and consideration,
* * *
In 1989, this was the letter I sent with my application to Annie Dillard’s Literary Nonfiction class at Wesleyan University. I was a last-semester senior, an English major who had failed at being a studio art major and thus became an English major by default.
As I waited for what I was sure was going to be rejection, I went to the mall to shop for Christmas presents and walked through bookstores full of copies of the Annie Dillard boxed edition—Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, American Childhood, Holy The Firm—and the Best American Essays of 1988, edited, yes, by Annie Dillard. I walked around them as if they were her somehow and not her books, and left empty-handed.
I didn’t buy them because if she rejected me, they would be unbearable to own.
When I got into the class, in the first class meeting, she told us not to read her work while we were her students.
I’m going to have a big enough influence on you as it is, she said. You’re going to want to please me just for being your teacher. So I don’t want you trying to imitate me. I don’t want you to write like me. And she paused here. I want you to write like you.
Some people looked guilty when she said this. I felt guilty, too. I didn’t know her work. I just knew it had made her famous. I wished I’d had the sense to want to disobey her. I felt shallow, but I was there because my father had always said, Whatever it is you want to do, find the person who does it best, and then see if they will teach you.
I’d already gone through everyone else at Wesleyan. She was next on my list.
* * *
This lovingly compiled collection of essays is described thus:
For Denis Johnson, it was Leonard Gardner’s cult favorite Fat City; for Jonathan Safran Foer, it was a brief encounter with Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai; Mary Gordon’s mentors were two Barnard professors, writers Elizabeth Hardwick and Janice Thaddeus, whose lessons could not have been more different. In Mentors, Muses & Monsters, edited and with a contribution by Elizabeth Benedict, author of the National Book Award finalist Slow Dancing, thirty of today’s brightest literary lights turn their attention to the question of mentorship and influence, exploring the people, events, and books that have transformed their lives. The result is an astonishing collection of stirring, insightful, and sometimes funny personal essays.
In her communications with contributors, Benedict noticed a longing to thank the people who had changed their lives, and to acknowledge them the best way a storyteller can, by revealing the intricacies of their connection. These writers look back to when something powerful happened to them at an unpredictable age, a moment when a role model saw potential in them, or when they came to understand they possessed literary talent themselves. As most of these encounters occurred when the writers were young — unsure of who they were or what they could accomplish — several pieces radiate a poignant tenderness, and almost all of them express enduring gratitude.
If that isn’t reason enough to lose yourself, the summation just might: “Rich, thought-provoking, and often impassioned, these pieces illuminate not only the anxiety but the necessity of influence — and also the treasures it yields. By revealing themselves as young men and women in search of direction and meaning, these artists explore the endlessly varied paths to creative awakening and literary acclaim.”