Wanted: Literary Mentor
May 21, 2013 | by Michael McGrath
I’m in the market for a mentor. My qualifications? I’m educated. Some (prospective employers, Stafford Loan sharks, OKCupid algorithms) would say too educated. More importantly, I have wide shoulders and solid vision, am able to open most jars and decipher prescription fine print. I’m handy with sticky file cabinets and missing memory sticks. I can sort e-mails and convert floppy disks, screen calls from editors and exes, purchase trinkets and gadgets for departing lovers or estranged children.
Past potential mentors (professors, friends of friends, intermittent pen pals) have proved unwilling or unworthy for a variety of reasons. Some were in no position to accept or provide help, requiring their own full-blown interventions. Others had full plates—book tours, a slew of international residencies—or had already been claimed by another dedicated sycophant. One candidate of desirable vintage (tottering, affable, largely abandoned) preferred nubile female mentees. Another candidate projected an intriguing otherworldly aura. A certified genius, she was very kind but too far removed from the cynical workings of the world to offer much practical assistance. (In one dreamlike afternoon workshop, just prior to dropping another brilliant, indecipherable insight: “First, allow me to put on my human-being suit.”)
But enough about me, let’s talk about you. Ideally you are a cultural touchstone who would like to see your career reincarnated through a willing and qualified vessel, a literary lion(ess) seeking to direct and amplify the ripples of your influence, a charming gadabout with a tennis court and celebrity godchildren. You are able to offer constructive praise of my stalled novel (feel free to characterize it as “a more soulful rendition” of your own debut) and you are happy to engineer introductions to heiresses with serrated shoulder blades, impressionable patrons, pocket-squares-in-chief, and other figures commonly found at the fizzy intersection of art and commerce.
In these blooming, feral months of early summer there is doubtless much to do at your summer cottage. Allow me to spray the hornets’ nest in your outdoor shower, prune your butterfly bush, wax your musty MG, collect intelligence on the local unmarrieds, crack your lobsters, brew your tea, administer your nightcaps, track down exotic pipe tobaccos, sand your dock, paint your dinghy, rearrange pots and buckets as the ceiling springs the usual leaks. Deputize me to hand wash your cardigans in the sink and retrieve daily gossip, newspapers, and jugs of gin from the general store.
I’m even willing to enter into a vaguely forebidding psychosexual relationship, waking to find pieces of sea glass rearranged on my nightstand in some significant way or a constellation of fireflies scooped from the meadow and released into my rooms above the garage. Accidentally leave your diary open to a particularly suggestive passage, point out photographs of dead lovers who shared my likeness and “energy,” paint watercolors in the nude.
Perhaps in July I’ll chauffeur you through green New England hills to various conferences and retreats, manage ferry schedules and tire pressure, proofread craft talks and other remarks, prepare picnic lunches, replace reading glasses left in a truck-stop washroom, provide cold comfort and fake contact information for clingy attendees. In a humid lull between award ceremonies, I’ll use satellites to locate your cherished childhood swimming hole, shepherd you up the steep trail, apply sunscreen to your ravaged skin, and either turn my head modestly or note your fragile grace (your preference) as you strip before plunging into the cold water.
In August, as the nights cool and rents rise, I’ll ghostwrite blurbs and upload your syllabus, invite culturally significant neighbors over for cocktails and croquet while rebuffing the local book clubs. One night, drowsy from the day’s sun, picking at a cold chicken, we discuss the impending fall with unusual candor. Your editor threatens legal action over an undelivered manuscript; your biographer is bored; your department head hints at forced retirement. The last of the movie money must go to a new roof. There are no calls from Stockholm forthcoming. We jokingly contemplate murder-suicide while toasting the freedom of diminished circumstances.
The big maple in the yard turns a mournful red. You spend Labor Day with family. Shunned, I write a story about a dying, vice-riddled artist haunted by regret. You retaliate by writing a story about a talentless, deceitful striver who worms his way into the confidences of a trusting, benevolent sage.
Our falling out is quick and bloodless. You instruct the groundskeeper to pack my belongings while I’m off at the pharmacy. I return to tutoring while you pen a widely mocked editorial on the fecklessness of millennials. My story is rejected at the usual places while yours is acquired by the latest well-funded online outfit.
CV, samples, and references available upon request.
Michael McGrath is a writer living in Connecticut and a former Poe-Faulkner Fellow at the University of Virginia. Visit him at mikeymcgrath.com.