Mentors, Muses, & Monsters

Elizabeth Benedict

This is my belated Valentine to Tin House and its editors, for doing so much to bring into the world Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives. The anthology changed the lives of many of the contributors and, from what I hear, of many readers. And it’s just been published in paperback, after a long trek from life between hard covers.

I conceived the idea hours after submitting an essay to Rob Spillman on my Barnard College mentor, Elizabeth Hardwick, soon after she died in December 2007. I remember wandering around my house afterwards in a contented semi-daze, happy to have had a chance to remember this hopeful turning point in my messy young life, my senior tutorial with Hardwick.

Moments later, I went on-line to look for books about writers and mentors – and found only Alex Wilkinson’s memoir about William Maxwell. Within an hour, I had a working title for a collection that was published the following year: Mentors, Muses & Monsters. I liked the alliteration, and I liked the idea that these should not be sugar-coated tributes.

The next morning, I invited Mary Gordon to be part of it; she said Yes before I finished the question. So did dozens of others. Many agreed even before they knew whom they would choose. And then there was Joyce Carol Oates, who said from the start: books were her mentors, not people – books by Emily Dickinson, Hemingway, Lewis Carroll. I was game to enlarge the definition and stretched it further when Christopher Castellani, the director Grub Street, a fine novelist, and a former student of mine, said he wanted to write about what nine years at Bread Loaf had done for his writerly self. Jane Smiley added to this mix when she chose to write about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1974 – and especially the influence of her classmates Allan Gurganus and Barbara Grossman.

Tin House published my piece on Hardwick and, later on, the essay Sigrid Nunez produced for the anthology, “Sontag’s Rules,” which caught the attention of James Atlas, who asked her to expand the essay to a book, which became Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. The essay also received a Pushcart Prize, as did a second from the anthology, Cheryl Strayed’s tribute to Alice Munro, “Munro Country,” first published in the Missouri Review. Most of the other essays found first serial homes in the best literary journals in the country – everywhere from the Yale Review to The Rumpus – and one became an instant Internet sensation after appearing in a strictly on-line publication: Alexander Chee’s piece, “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life.”

It turns out that most of the essays are about mentors and muses, and very few about monsters. Given the choice, the writers cared more about paying tribute to those who noticed something special about them than they did about settling scores or getting the last word.

Elizabeth Benedict, is the author of Slow Dancing, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize, The Beginner’s Book of Dreams, Safe Conduct, and The Joy of Writing Sex.  She has taught writing at Princeton University, Swarthmore, and at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the editor of Mentors, Muses, & Monsters.