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'Mentor' author Grimes turns literary failure into something wonderful

What does it mean to be successful?

I found myself asking this question frequently last month, as I raced through an extraordinary new book called Mentor, a memoir by Tom Grimes, who runs the creative writing program at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Grimes was earning his keep as a waiter in Florida in the late 1980s, struggling to publish his short stories, when Frank Conroy -- the director of the Iowa Writer's Workshop until his death in 2005 -- invited Grimes to attend the prestigious program. Within days of his arrival, Conroy even offered to connect his new protégé with Candida Donadio, then the most powerful literary agent in the country. (Her client list included Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller and Mario Puzo.)

So Grimes was a success, right?

Not exactly. Because even though he sold his novel, he didn't sell it for even half as much as he (or Conroy) thought it was worth, and he hated the book cover they designed for it, and the reviews were tepid, and his publisher never even issued a paperback edition.

As any psychotherapist will tell you, outsized expectations usually lead to disappointment. Just as dangerous is comparing yourself to others, whether it's measuring your salary, or the size of their house, or the security of their job. Someone has always got it better than you, and you tend to forget that someone always has it worse, too.

Hard times

But something about Mentor struck a chord with me, and I don't think it's just because I've had my own share of joys and frustrations in attempting to publish fiction. I think it's also that I've seen so many friends, especially in creative professions, lose their livelihood in recent months. My own mentor, a writer and editor who gave me my first break writing DVD reviews for a magazine in New York in the late 1990s, recently published a blog post describing how all of his freelance gigs had dried up, and how he had resorted to taking the occasional construction gig.

The traditional notions of "success" that we all grew up with -- find a job you love, work your way up the ladder, buy a house, maybe marry and raise a family -- have been completely undermined by the economy. These days, most of us feel lucky to have a job at all, much less have the time to worry about whether we're growing creatively and spiritually or to plan for the future.

Maybe it's foolish for any writer or artist to think that he could earn a living from creative pursuits. But that's also the reason why Grimes' book speaks so powerfully to these times. Without being whiny or petulant, he explores the all-too-human desire to want, and the all-too-familiar agony that comes when, despite our very best efforts, we can't get our dreams to cohere into reality. You don't need to be an artist to understand those feelings, not when the unemployment rate still stubbornly refuses to drop much below 10 percent and when economists continue to issue dire warnings of a double-dip recession.

Redefining expectations

Will things ever get better? Hopefully, but until then, we're all going to have to readjust our expectations for what it means to be successful -- and that's not always going to be easy. The beauty of Mentor is that it functions as a kind of exorcism for its author, who after years of contemplating suicide and suffering paranoid delusions, finally comes to terms with his life's disappointments.

Eventually, he starts to realize that Mentor might very well be the book that he was meant to write all along. (It has quickly become the best-reviewed book of his career, earning raves in The New York Times and The Washington Post and now seems poised to earn Grimes the literary prizes that he coveted but could never win with his novels.)

What does it mean to be successful, then? Perhaps it means you just have to put your head down and try to power through tough times and cling to the hope that there's a light at the end of the seemingly endless tunnel. "The story still mystifies me," Grimes writes at the end of Mentor -- he can't begin to make sense of everything that happened to him. But his ability to parry life's toughest blows, and deliver this tale of modest redemption, should be an inspiration to us all.

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