<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> <b>I</b> was living in Key West and working as a waiter the first time I saw Frank Conroy. Each January, a literary seminar brought two dozen famous writers to the island. Panels featuring them took place in a large auditorium at the community college. On opening day at nine o'clock in the morning, the year's keynote speaker addressed everyone in attendance. Given that my restaurant shift ended sometime after midnight and I invariably closed the After Deck bar several hours later, 9:00 AM had a middle-of-the-night feel to me. The bar's wooden planks, white tables, and white chairs were suspended several feet above the Atlantic's shallow inlet and overlooked what, as a young writer, I knew to be Sam Lawrence's house. As an editor, he'd published Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O'Brien, and Thomas McGuane, idols to me at the time. Occasionally, I'd spot a cocktail party under way on his deck and wonder who was there sipping a scotch and if, someday, I might be one of them. <p> When my alarm rang at eight thirty, I rose, splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth, then biked across the island from the clapboard house where I lived to the hall where Frank Conroy was scheduled to speak. I took a seat in the dim balcony, far from the stage. I'd been writing for more than a decade, and during the past year my first stories had found homes in nationally respected literary journals. Nevertheless, the chasm between the podium and myself seemed unbridgeable. It was as if the writers who would occupy the stage's empty chairs had pierced a literary dimension in space-time and had returned simply to pass along wisdom, be applauded, and collect an honorarium. I feared that I would never join their ranks. I'd grown up in a bookless house, raised by a father who'd quit school after the eighth grade and mocked the novels I toted to the mediocre junior college in New York that had granted me admission. And although I'd managed two successful businesses in Manhattan-one of which sold expensive stationery, the other housewares and antiques-before my wife, Jody, and I moved to Key West two years earlier, I felt condemned to lead a waiter's life, not a writer's. That my station would climb no higher seemed apparent. Each winter, during high season, town was packed with tourists, and the job's relentless, exhausting labor made composing an aesthetically coherent sentence, one with the rhythm, tempo, and music of a distinctive voice, as impossible for me as it was impossible for a physicist to snatch an electron from space while it orbited the nucleus of an atom. Clearly, I needed to change my life, but I didn't know what life would replace the one I'd created. Like a novelist who never outlines a book, I'd never plotted my future. Instead, I trusted my intuition. Sometimes the results were good; other times, disastrous. Only one constant existed: I wrote. Writing was my center of gravity. If I quit, I'd implode. All my notebooks would become worthless. All my unfinished drafts, orphaned. The million words I'd written, however, insisted that I not give up. And since I couldn't allow my doubt to overwhelm my work, at times I needed to glimpse the life I'd envisioned for myself. So I went to hear Frank Conroy speak. <p> I also went because, when I'd recently mentioned applying to law school, Jody stunned me by suggesting that I apply to writing programs instead. In New York, we'd lived four blocks from NYU and ten subway stops from Columbia University, each of which had notable creative writing programs, but never once had we discussed submitting my work to either of them. Nor had I ever had an impulse to join a writers' group. I had no writer friends. I pursued my work in a vacuum. What existed were books, a typewriter, notepads, pencils, erasers, and I. Plus, the rejection letters I plucked out of our narrow metal mailbox, which I dreaded and revered for its power either to obliterate my expectations or, rarely, deliver word of my infinitesimal success. Beyond these monkish concerns, a palpable literary world didn't exist for me. But, with several stories in print and no other prospects, I decided to take Jody's advice, although I still half believed that creative writing programs had nothing to teach anyone and was suddenly terrified of being rejected. I selected four programs: Iowa because it was Iowa; Syracuse because Raymond Carver had taught there, and it was in New York; Boston University because I could graduate in a year; and the University of Florida at Gainesville because it was near Key West and so second rate that it would probably accept me without hesitation. I assembled an application that included the beginning of a novel-not the slim, semiautobiographical novel I'd written in my midtwenties, but a new, more ambitious one. I dropped four copies off at the Key West post office and then did what most young writers do-I waited. <p> In the auditorium, roughly three hundred people, most in their fifties or sixties, waited for Frank Conroy to appear. In 1987, he'd become the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and by the time he arrived in Key West in January 1989, he'd become as renowned for his new position as he'd been celebrated for his memoir, <i>Stop-Time</i>, twenty years earlier. Now, the raked rows of cushioned chairs and the velvet maroon drape, which hung several feet behind the dais, reinforced the event's theatricality. A program listing the seminar's events had been handed out. Around me, audience members studied each author's biographical note, or circled the day and time of a panel they didn't want to miss. A few men wore Hawaiian shirts, and the smooth face of the woman seated beside me gleamed with lotion. She smelled like a freshly peeled mango, and I wondered if she was, or hoped to be, a writer. Her long, glossy fingernails would have made typing difficult, and it was too dark to see if, like me, she had a calloused groove near the upper knuckle of her middle finger from holding a pencil while scribbling in a notebook. A slender gold bracelet circled her tanned left wrist, and her arms, bare to the shoulder, had the lean, sculpted look of a fortysomething woman who excelled in yoga and ran a charity marathon once a year. I imagined her sitting, freshly showered, at a walnut-stained, Colonial-style, lemon-waxed desk with brass handles on each of its six drawers. Already, the woman had become a character to me. Then the lights dimmed and a spotlight illuminated the podium. Frank Conroy emerged from the shadows and, in a gait neither hurried nor languid but at the deliberate pace of someone accustomed to having audiences await his arrival, he made his way to the microphone. He carried several sheets of white eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch paper in one hand. He parted his silvery-gray hair on the left like a schoolboy, yet the comfortable way he moved in his slightly baggy blazer and khaki pants lent him a patrician style. It seemed as if he'd boarded at a preparatory academy during his early teens and dated girls who wore plaid skirts and kneesocks before enrolling at Wellesley or Bard, when in fact he'd been educated at a New York City public high school. He approached my height, six foot, perhaps an inch more. He raised his head just enough for the audience at the rear of the hall to get a glimpse of his face as he adjusted the microphone. For an instant, his eyeglass lenses reflected the light. Then he lowered his head and, without acknowledging anyone's presence, began to read. I'd planned to approach him to ask one question when he finished speaking. How that encounter would play out dominated my thoughts and numbed most of my senses. I no longer noticed the woman's scent or felt the chair supporting me. If acid burned my throat, I didn't taste it. I don't remember a single syllable formed by his tongue and palate; to me, they composed a series of incomprehensible sounds. For twenty minutes, watching him stand at the podium constituted my entire universe. Then his address ended and he walked off the stage, ignoring what I recognized as applause. <p> I'd sat at the end of a row so I wouldn't have to say "Excuse me" to anyone as I left the hall. A carpeted stairwell led to the ground floor and I scurried down it, my footsteps muffled. I found the broad, high-ceilinged lobby empty except for a service counter, which sold coffee and pastries. He may have exited through a rear door, or remained backstage to talk with friends. He couldn't have been avoiding me because he didn't know I was pursuing him. So I waited and, while waiting, revised the latest draft of what I would say. First, a greeting; then an introductory statement followed by, if permitted, a question I'd honed to the minimum number of words. I decided to say: "Excuse me, Mr. Conroy. I've applied for admission to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. <i>If accepted</i> at thirty-two, do you think I'm too old to attend?" Settling on this, I felt like I'd made a publication deadline, for three seconds later, out from behind a wall leading backstage stepped Frank Conroy. He wore scuffed running shoes and was slightly pigeon-toed. He reached into one blazer pocket and retrieved a crumpled handkerchief, which placed him in another era. I thought handkerchiefs, like fedoras, had gone out of style. He made his way toward me, which lifted my hopes, but intensified my anxiety. Then I understood the purpose of his direction: he was headed my way because I stood between the coffee counter and him. I judged five feet to be a respectful distance from which to launch a question. Any farther I would have to shout, any closer I would have to whisper. So I said, "Mr. Conroy, I enjoyed your talk and wonder if I could ask you one question?" <p> He wiped the tip of his nose, bunched his handkerchief, and slipped it into his pocket. <p> "I've applied to the Writers' Workshop." <p> "Yeah, you and eight hundred others." <p> He didn't look at me, or stop walking, as he said it. Instead, he cruised by the way an ocean liner steams past a small, deserted island. His quick and impersonal brushback caught me off guard, and I started to ask question two before question one had been answered. <p> "Just one question, five seconds," I said, improvising. <p> "Let me get a cup of tea," he said. <p> I watched him stroll to the counter, place his order, search an incredibly long time for a fistful of coins, pay, pour a line of sugar as white and long as an unfiltered cigarette into his cardboard cup, then turn and once again head my way. When he was about five yards away, he ceased stirring his tea, looked up, and smiled. His impatience had been momentary. He had a cold, and now, tea in hand, he would happily answer my question. He arched his eyebrows, elongating his face, which made him seem ten years younger as he shouted, "Hi!" Surprised, I extended my hand when he extended his. Then he walked right past me. He'd spotted an old friend. Shoulder to shoulder, their backs to me, they sauntered off. <p> Outside, my hands shook as I tried to fit the key into my bike's lock. I cursed the lock, its chain, my hands, and my stupid fucking bike, which I rode across town, at times standing on the pedals, like a kid, pumping harder in order to move faster. At home, I kicked open the front gate, chained the bike to the front porch, unlocked the front door, slammed it shut behind me, bounded up the uncarpeted stairs I'd painted battleship gray on one of my days off, then slowed at the top of them, where two floor-to-ceiling bookcases made of one-by-six pine wood planks stood. I'd never alphabetized my library. The three hundred or more books I owned had tattered spines. Most were paperbacks. Some were taller than others, making the collection look craggy and disheveled. I spotted <i>Stop-Time</i> on a high shelf and reached for it, tipping it forward and grabbing it. Jody had heard me swearing in the hallway as I looked for the book. Alarmed, she'd come to find me. <p> "What's wrong?" <p> "Nothing." <p> I opened the book to its center. <p> "What are you doing?" <p> Without answering, I struggled to tear it in half. When I failed, I ripped out pages by the handful until I'd gutted the thing, splitting in two the author's name and the book's title. Then I carried the shredded mess into the kitchen and flung it at the trash bin, railing at pages that fluttered away. I collected them, maddest at the ones that insisted on slipping out of my fingers. Once I'd crushed every page by jamming my foot into the trash bin and stomping on the pile with one foot, I turned and said, "Fuck Frank Conroy." <p> * * * <p> Gainesville turned me down. The writing program's director wrote a letter in which he explained that I would thrive in a different environment. Jody interpreted the letter generously. <p> "He's saying you belong in a better program." <p> "He's saying I'm rejected." I closed my fist around the sheet of stationery and dropped the paper ball into the trash. <p> Our mail arrived at 3:00 PM. By that time, I had laid one of my five pink button-down shirts on our ironing board to press it before doing the same to one of the white aprons I tied around my waist each evening. I owned two pairs of tan, permanently creased, stain-resistant, polyester-blend pants and a pair of brown shoes with leather tops and spongy rubber soles to cushion my feet. Once I began to prep for work, I refused to collect the day's mail. Even if a tall magazine or an envelope propped open the wooden mailbox's lid, I ignored it. I closed the gate, swung my right leg over my bike seat, and pedaled to work. I didn't want to know if another story had been rejected. Being a servant required supreme detachment, a buffer between myself and the nightly anger, frustration, and humiliation guaranteed by the job. To survive psychologically, I practiced "empty mind," a state in which Zen masters experience the world as simultaneously substantial and empty. It's there, yet it isn't. From my shift's beginning until its end, the world was nothing and I was no one. If I knew that a story had been rejected, maintaining this state was impossible. My ego remained attached to my failure. Then, rather than basking in emptiness, I heard customers' complaints, resented their demands, and bitched if I received a lousy tip. But if I didn't open a rejection letter before work, it didn't exist until I was home, where, after midnight and after I'd had several beers, my reaction to bad news was muted, my pain dulled. Also, the best palliative for rejection was immediately available. I would file the letter, print a fresh copy of the story, and change the heading of my "Dear Editor" cover letter. The next morning, I would mail out the package, along with a stamped, self-addressed envelope in which an editor could place a rejection letter. Fresh hope negated past failure. My story had three to six months to live, and I could forget it, as I had trained myself to do. <p> Syracuse turned me down next. But rather than simply sending a letter, the program's staff returned my application manuscript, upon which someone had scrawled and then partially erased the words <i>B-, boring</i>. This may have been due to laziness. After all, someone could have used Wite-Out to mask the handwriting, made a copy of the original page, and replaced it with an innocent replica. Not only would this have been kind, it also would have been postmodern: a copy of a copy of a copy, like a Warhol lithograph of soup cans or Marilyn Monroe. Classic rejection letters lie to minimize an author's pain: "We regret." "We wish we could." "We're sorry but due to space limitations." But editors never regret, wish, or feel sorry: they simply avoid being cruel, and the staff at Syracuse hadn't. At best, its response was careless, at worst, mocking and sadistic. <p> I recall being furious about the rejection, and so, one frustrated afternoon, I violated every waiter's cardinal rule: on your day off, never answer your phone an hour before service begins unless you want to listen to a sick or hungover colleague beg you to work his or her shift. But as I was in the mood to punish myself for continuing to be a failure, I picked up the receiver and said, "Hello." <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>MENTOR</b> by <b>TOM GRIMES</b> Copyright © 2010 by Tom Grimes. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.