Although I had several wonderful writing teachers over the years, for stints long and short—Janet McCann, Ewing Campbell, Helena María Viramontes, Sandra Cisneros—I’ve never had a writing mentor, per se: someone who advised me on how to live as a writer, or develop my voice, or make choices that would protect my growth as an artist.
When I hear about other writers’ mentors, it sounds wonderful: so much interest and generosity and devotion invested in a young writer’s development. Fierce exhortations to improve, wise advice, nurturing—I love those stories.
But I can’t complain. Books themselves have been my mentors, together with interviews with writers in the Paris Review and elsewhere, which I’ve always hungrily read.
Besides, by the time I got to graduate school, I’d already had a pivotal mentor who’d changed my life. Without her, I would never have become the self who could have become a writer.
It was the late 1980s, and I was attending a good private university in Texas. My father had not cared about our going to college; my mother had outright forbidden it, due to her religious convictions as a Jehovah’s Witness. Alone, I’d left West Virginia, where we’d moved for my father’s airline job, and was putting myself through college with scholarships, loans, and waitressing. Any high hopes I’d entertained for myself had been crushed by the reality of having a baby at twenty. When I became pregnant, my father wept and held my hand and pleaded with me to marry the father, so I did: a boy my age who’d dropped out of college and was working as a security guard. We lived in a high-crime, high-violence area we could afford. Eleven houses in our neighborhood burned down while we were there. It was no place to raise a baby; we needed to get out.
I decided to teach high school English. For a first-generation college student from poverty, it was a pretty good dream.
I can’t remember the order in which I took her courses. Twentieth-century British literature (Eliot, Joyce, Auden, Greene, Waugh). Nineteenth-century novels, thick like bricks (Emma, Middlemarch, Bleak House). A whole seminar on Wallace Stevens.
She was Dr. Mooneyham, young, funny, and brilliant. Sure of herself. Demanding. In the student union, my classmates and I griped about the high page counts every week. She was unabashedly, unapologetically elitist—in an intellectual way: Yale and Vanderbilt were the schools where she’d gone. Her shrewd insights lit up the lines we’d read. Undaunted by T.S. Eliot’s obscurities, she taught us to be undaunted, too. She was hilarious, like a stand-up comic—her caustic asides, the barely perceptible shrugs, the eye-rolls—and her standards for us were strict. There were smart comments and foolish comments, and she didn’t hesitate to let us know—with sometimes just a cocked eyebrow and long pause—which were which.
Each week, we had to compose three complex, smart questions about what we’d read—the kinds of questions upon which a scholarly article might be based. I wrote them. I loved it. I loved her small, inky checkmarks next to my best points. I loved seeing her tidy script in the margins: “Lovely.” No one had said lovely to me since England, since the day-school where I’d been so happy as a child: pleated grey flannel skirt, little striped tie, knee socks, reading aloud to the teacher each day at her desk. Dr. Mooneyham was rigorous like that. Long, dull years in West Virginia’s failing public education system and the toll of various traumas had intervened.
Pricked awake, my long-slumbering mind winked back on.
One day after class, Dr. Mooneyham asked me what I was planning to do with my life. I told her.
“No,” she said immediately. “You need to go to graduate school.” She said it with such certainty.
I didn’t know what graduate school was. I’d never known where professors came from. Never wondered. They all seemed like creatures of a different ilk: rich, clever people who sprouted full-blown from their comfortable, book-lined rooms.
I couldn’t imagine myself becoming such a being. I’d spent summers digging ditches, nights washing dishes. I’d machined artificial hip joints in a factory, scooped ice cream for tourists, waited tables on people who saw me as a thing. Nursing my baby on demand, I saw myself in utilitarian ways.
I knew I didn’t want the only future I’d been taught to envision for myself, as a stay-at-home wife and mother, obedient to my husband and Jehovah, toting The Watchtower from door to door. But I couldn’t imagine much else. I was the first person I’d known—aside from teachers and my parents’ lawyers when they got divorced—who’d gone to college at all.
Teaching high school: I knew what that looked like. It didn’t thrill me, but I thought I could probably do it.
Faced with Dr. Mooneyham’s insistence on the professoriate as my future, I must have hemmed and hawed. I couldn’t see myself as professor-material.
Fine. We needed to do an independent study together, she said.
I’d never done an independent study, never so much as knocked on a professor’s door jamb during office hours. Never asked for an extension on a paper, even when my university-granted maternity leave was only two weeks. (Now, as a professor, I know that such reticence, such reluctance, is typical of first-generation college students: rules are rules, and we follow them. We don’t ask for special treatment. If we fail, we fail in silence and drop out. Who do you think you are?)
But Dr. Mooneyham was sure I needed to do an independent study. Pick an author, she said; she didn’t care which. I picked E.M. Forster. My syllabus: everything he wrote.
Once a week, the two of us met—but not on campus. At Dr. Mooneyham’s house. It was a condition she imposed. At the time, I didn’t know why.
Each week I drove from the barrio to her neighborhood in the ancient hand-me-down car my husband’s parents had given him, its white paint crackled all across the hood like fancy pottery, its motor’s heat rigged to blow into the interior of the car so the engine wouldn’t overheat. No air conditioning, Texas. Each week I got out of the car, sweating in my Goodwill clothes, and stood for a moment, quiet, looking at the pretty lawn and live oaks.
Inside, she gave me things to eat and drink. We sat on the clean furniture and talked about language and ideas, about sentences and arcs, revelation and concealment. While we worked, Dr. Mooneyham’s little daughter ran through the bright living room. Her son was a toddler, my own son’s age.
Those hours, the light, the domestic ease, the lively conversations underwritten by a larger peace: they created an oasis in the middle of my cramped, chaotic life. Dr. Mooneyham paid attention to what I thought. She asked questions. She pushed me to explain myself, as my mother and stepfather had back home, but never got angry or yelled as they had. Being a resistant reader could be a form, not of peril, but of play.
It was the first time in my life someone had taken a sustained, focused interest in my intellectual life. As if I might have something worthwhile to say.
I saw with my own eyes how you could be a woman and a mother and an intellectual, a person whose life unfolded among books.
I can’t remember asking for help with my graduate school admissions essay. I took the best offer and moved away. I divorced my husband, got my masters and Ph.D., and raised my son. I remarried and took the first tenure-track job that was offered. I moved to a cold state in the Midwest and worked. Once I had tenure, I wrote my first book, The Truth Book, a memoir about my strange life. I went to a workshop, where a Chicana writer-scholar noticed something I wrote or said, and a few months later she called and asked if I might be interested in a job at her university. It was much larger than the school where I’d been teaching and offered various benefits mine didn’t. I said I’d be happy to visit.
In the meantime, Dr. Mooneyham had also gotten divorced. She had remarried. She became Dr. White and moved to Nebraska for her husband’s new job at the university there. She worked in the English department and the honors program and eventually became a full professor. She had another daughter and another son.
Twenty-seven years ago, she was a young Jane Austen scholar, an unabashed intellectual elitist, a precise and immaculate reader, the daughter of a classics professor. Once a week, she invited into her home a shabby girl who drove a sputtering car and who’d been wayward enough to get knocked up, and who wanted to read all of Forster only because the movie A Room with a View had been, in every way, so beautiful.
There was so much generosity there, on my mentor’s side. So much vision. And on mine: so much hope.
Being a professor, a scholar and teacher, wasn’t the easiest path for an artist. The work-weeks were long; I became someone who sat through a lot of committee meetings and took a lot of work home. I couldn’t make much time to write. The things I wrote were short.
But the stability of the tenure track (I applied for no temporary or part-time positions) enabled me to haul myself out of poverty, to build a base of security for myself and my son, to lay the groundwork, to create from scratch the material conditions of a life that could include and support literary writing. No one was going to do that for me. Being a professor helped me do it for myself. In that way, it has been essential.
In 2007, I came to visit the university where I’d been invited, in Nebraska. When I gave my job talk, Laura White was sitting in the audience. I cannot describe her smile.
And I believe just enough in the fearful symmetry of fairy tales—the metamorphosis at midnight, the horse who turns into a man, the girl who turns into a self—to end the story there.
Born in Miami, raised in England and West Virginia, and educated in Texas, Joy Castro is the author of the memoirs The Truth Book and Island of Bones, the post-Katrina New Orleans thrillers Hell or High Water and Nearer Home, and a forthcoming collection of short stories, How Winter Began. Winner of a Nebraska Book Award and an International Latino Book Award and a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, she edited the collection Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, and her work has appeared in venues including Salon, Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, Afro-Hispanic Review, and the New York Times Magazine. She is a professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she currently directs the Institute for Ethnic Studies.
You can learn more about Joy Castro on her website here.