Lucia Berlin: My Mentor in Being an Outsider

Jenny Shank
From the November/December 2021 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

I met Lucia Berlin when I was a twenty-two-year-old graduate student at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She was a generous teacher and a brilliant writer who, at sixty-one, had not yet received the acclaim she deserved. Her fiction workshop was held in the dilapidated English building in an obscure classroom whose door was hidden in a stairwell. I walked in and sat among a dozen or so other students at high school–style desks arranged in a circle. Lucia had long brown hair, bright blue eyes, an oxygen tank that was by her side wherever she went, and a back curved with scoliosis so severe a rib once punctured her lung. She was so far from famous that an internet search of her name yielded next to nothing. When I applied to the program, I read one of the only stories of hers I could find, linked from her bio on the university’s website, and knew I wanted to learn from her. 

When I was that age, what I wanted more than anything was a mentor. It seemed like all the great writers had one: Richard Wright helped Ralph Ellison get a writing job. Gustave Flaubert introduced Guy de Maupassant to his famous writer buddies. Sarah Orne Jewett advised Willa Cather about her writing style and how to organize her life. But how did you get a mentor? Perhaps you could win a writing contest and the illustrious judge could pluck you out of obscurity. Or maybe you could attend a workshop taught by a writer you admired and try to dazzle them. Once you had a mentor, they would guide your development, recommend your work to their agent and editor and, voilà, you have arrived. But first you had to be accepted into such a workshop. 

I applied to grad school straight out of college, and I did not get into any of the programs that might have offered some sort of industry boost. One of my friends went to such a place—Columbia University—and she described the tense jostling for influence among her peers, the workshop cutdowns, appearances by lit-dabbling luminaries (cough James Franco), the jealousy that flared as writers vied to become some famous teacher’s favorite, and the student rumored to be the next big thing smoothly formed the appropriate connections. 

In Boulder no one was rumored to be the next big thing. The atmosphere was mellow, and students were considerate of one another’s work—the stakes were so low. At the time I hadn’t heard of anyone from our program ever managing to publish a book. The only sort of rumors that flew around were like those about my classmate Guy, who had long blond hair and a beard, wore trucker caps, worshipped Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and was rumored to make a living through poker winnings he took off suckers up the canyon in Cripple Creek. Many of my classmates were in their thirties or forties and were balancing raising kids and working regular jobs with their graduate studies. Writing was a dream they squeezed in on the side of life. 

It was clear that I would never find a fantasy mentor at this place—the kind of connected, influential person who would smooth the way for my writing and its publication. Most writers never do. I realize now I was seeking not so much a mentor as a kind of magician who would make everything happen easily and, through their confidence in my abilities, enable me to stop doubting myself. In Lucia, though, I found a more practical and durable type of influence. She treated us as equals, shared her own struggles to write and publish in the face of health problems, and taught us how to brave the difficulties that always accompany the writing life—rejection, failure, and doubt. A true mentor does not have to open doors but instead shows us how to endure and persist with grace when doors will inevitably be shut. 

After Lucia’s class my first semester, I tried to persuade enough students to ask for a novel workshop so the program would offer one, but no one wanted to work on a whole book. Many students had multiple jobs and kids, and everyone was writing smaller, more manageable forms. The fiction faculty was mostly away on sick leave. Linda Hogan had been injured in a horseback riding accident, which she wrote about in The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir (Norton, 2001). Ronald Sukenick stopped teaching classes before  my second year, as the degenerative disease that would kill him five years later, inclusion body myositis, made it increasingly difficult to move. Steve Katz, an avant-garde writer, was taking a pause from teaching. 

That left Lucia, who taught the only fiction writing classes offered during my time in grad school. I majored in Lucia. When no one bit on the novel workshop idea, I asked Lucia if she would lead me in an independent study. I wrote up an official-sounding plan with an extensive reading list and turned it in to the department for approval. Lucia chuckled over my bibliography. “I love this,” she said, a wicked glint in her eyes, as if we were getting away with something. I toiled away on drafts in my apartment and met with Lucia once a week at her office, until her medical conditions prevented her from traveling to campus and we relocated everything—our meetings and our whole class for a literature seminar—to her tidy rental house on a tree-lined street at the base of the foothills. 

Lucia taught us to value ourselves as writers and to appreciate other writers, regardless of whether, what, or where they had published. Maybe no one would ever give you much recognition, and maybe your readers would be few, but the least we could do was give equal respect to everyone involved in this same difficult, vital endeavor. Lucia was a great literary pen pal, corresponding with Kenward Elmslie, Dagoberto Gilb, Lydia Davis, and others, exchanges she would often initiate with an admiring note about their work. After I defended my thesis with Lucia as my adviser, graduated, and got a job as the Denver/Boulder editor of the Onion A.V. Club (a gig Lucia told me to take when I had two job offers and the tarot cards she dealt indicated that this was the one that would leave me more time to write), I interviewed Gilb about his new book.

“But did he read any of your work?” Lucia asked. “You read all his work. You have to send him some stories. How else can you have a real conversation?” I agreed with Lucia, even though I was never going to do that. Journalism was different; you could not force your private creative dabbling on your interview subjects. But Lucia was not talking about journalism ethics—she was telling me how she believed writers should behave with one another to form community. 

When the Paris Review accepted a story I wrote the last semester in grad school for Lucia’s class, Lucia was the first person I showed the typed letter of acceptance. She was ecstatic for me. When, after several months of strange messages from the managing editor about the whereabouts and activities of George Plimpton (“George Plimpton still has the story on his desk...” “George Plimpton has taken the story to the country...”), the Paris Review rescinded the offer of publication and sent me a kill fee, Lucia was livid. I was twenty-four—I cried for a day. I told her about it as we sat in her sunny Boulder trailer that she bought after retiring from teaching. She served me blueberry blintzes and seethed. “I subscribed to the Paris Review just to read your story! I’m canceling my subscription today.” Her blue eyes lit up with the injustice of it. “They are awful. They did the same thing to me decades ago.” Lucia was the best kind of ally—she rooted for you, sure, but she also made your enemies hers. 

After she’d commiserated about my acceptance-rejection, I asked her what she was writing. This was the writerly etiquette that Lucia had taught me. You should care for your friends’ work as much as you care for your own, out of sincere interest and not as some kind of hoped-for quid pro quo. Wins come so seldom that you need friends to help you manage the lean between times. 

She shared what she was working on: a different type of memoir, describing each of the many homes she had lived in, thoroughly and exactly, and letting that tell her life’s story. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux would publish this as Welcome Home: A Memoir With Selected Photographs and Letters in 2018.) When she was partway through the book, she sold the trailer and moved to California to be near her sons. “My health is lousy,” she wrote to me. “In terrible pain, even though I’m on those strong time-release meds. Can barely walk around. Making oatmeal a huge project.” In one of the last letters she sent to me, she wrote that she was still working on the memoir and that doctors had found a malignant tumor in her lung. 

In one interview in which Lucia reflects on the scope of her life, she said, “The main continuity is that always, I was on the outside.” The truth is that the majority of writers never make it into anything that might be called the inner circle, whether they have a mentor to boost them there or not. Most writers exist on the outside, like Lucia did. 

Now that I have writing students of my own, I treat them like Lucia treated me: as an equal in the struggle. I do not have the power or influence to make their publishing dreams come true. But I can be a writer by their side. I can show them my rejections, tell them about my failures and humiliations. Did I ever tell you about the time I was a guest at my local library’s book club and the guy I sat next to didn’t realize I was the author and started bashing my novel, failing to notice the discussion leader’s frantic gestures? I can make sure that I don’t give them the false impression of a writer’s life that comes from only curated wins shared on social media. I can cheer their successes and curse the editors who don’t recognize their brilliance. The best mentorship is not a kind of leading, but a kind of being with. 

Lucia modeled for me how to keep writing when no recognition came, when few people cared about your work. She never pulled any strings because she had no strings to pull, but she would give you a tarot reading if you were stumped about a decision. The irony is that after her death, she achieved the kind of literary status that would have made her blurbs sought-after, that would have allowed her to bestow honors, and recommend students to agents and publishers. In the years following the breakout success of her selected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2015, eleven years after her death, I pictured visiting Lucia’s sunny trailer and telling her about her newfound fame. How Pedro Almodóvar was adapting her work into a film. How she had been written up in Vogue. How I found her book displayed in a Paris bookshop as a staff pick (“à découvrir absolument!”). She would have loved that. She once told me, “Childbirth and Paris are the only two things that were even better than I imagined.”

And then she would have told me that none of it mattered, that there was very little she could do for me that I could not do for myself. Set out, retain your humility and your self-respect, and try to write when you can. Life, health, work, and love will get in the way. Find your way back to the page. Editors, publishers, and other writers will snub you. So what? Get back to the page again, and again, and again. 


Jenny Shank is the author of the story collection Mixed Company (Texas Review Press, 2021), which won the George Garrett Fiction Prize, and the novel The Ringer (Permanent Press, 2011), winner of the High Plains Book Award. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, Barrelhouse, Alaska Quarterly Review, The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals (Vintage, 2012), and Dear McSweeney’s: Twenty-Two Years of Letters From McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (McSweeney’s, 2021). She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.