Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 12, 2022

There's some deep dharma in this, in seeing everything as your teacher. It extends so far beyond the confines of art or creative mentorship alone. It's really a "self-gaming" technique for living harmoniously and purposefully in general. Thanks for this! (It's my first day in the club and already obsessed with it! 😂 )

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When I was 23 (but felt more like 10 inside), I was admitted into a PhD program. A critical studies program, and I was happy, I thought, because it was "something" - other people seemed impressed by it. My parents were. It just wasn't the thing I wanted to do, which was an MFA, but applying for what I really wanted seemed a lot harder than applying for something that other people would approve of.

I was completing my MA in this program; it was the early Spring, and the PhD program would start that Fall. One day I arrived early to a seminar. A visiting professor asked me what my plans for the future were. I explained I just got accepted to the PhD program.

His face changed. "You were accepted?" I paused, uncertain of what to say.

He began to thumb through a pile of essays, and then found mine, He read something on the page and shook his head. "You don't have what it take to do a doctorate," he said. He continued reading my essay, frowning. "And look at this section... Why did they accept you," he asked.

Not knowing what else to do, I tried to apologize for my essay. "I'm certain I have a lot to develop--"

"Oh, no," he continued. He looked at me directly now. "Your writing is not PhD material."

Just at that moment other students came in, and within moments the seminar started. I pretended to follow along in the discussion, but my hands were shaking under the table. I felt unmasked: It was not just my writing - it was me. I was not good enough.

I did not know that day this professor gave that speech to other students before and after me. I assumed his words must be true because he was the professor. I was filled with shame; afraid, as well, that if I brought up what he said to any other professors, they might suddenly reach the same conclusion.

I eventually entered, and then walked away from, that PhD program. Not because of the visiting professor - but because I finally listened to myself. This painful experience was a gift, after all, and he was a mentor:

-I realized that if I was going to pursue something, I needed to pursue what I really wanted to (the MFA) and really wanted to work at;

-I accepted I am imperfect, as is my writing, and that, at the same time, I have the right to continue and work at both;

-I learned that in talking to anyone, especially students and writers (of any age), that you can be honest but kind; that you can, and must, find a way to build people, not break them.

I am sorry that 23-year-old was so ashamed and fearful. I am proud that she learned from the experience and, most of all, kept going - and that today she could even tell all of you about this experience.

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Good lord was that a great essay. I mean, the Story Club post was filled with wonderful writerly advice, but—wow—that linked essay makes me want to be a better person. Thanks, George.

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So beautiful. I love this post paired with the PDF you included, My Writing Timeline. Together they are sublime and work like infinity mirrors.

But this from the excerpt:

"Doug gives me the single greatest bit of advice on writing dialogue I have ever heard. And no, I am not going to share it here. It is that good, yes."

Oh, George, how could you do this to us? 😉

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(Brief) story time: my son and I worked most of the day yesterday editing a video for YouTube. He knew what he was doing; he was helping me, the ignorant novice. I sent it to our marketing director last night, whose feedback was, “it looks amateur.” Of course, I was defensive of my son - but also was reminded of the post on writing groups, and what advice is constructive and what is not. (This advice was not constructive!) I wrote her back and asked what, specifically, made her think it looks amateur, so we can address the weaknesses. Then I opened my email to this wonderful post on mentoring, which I plan to share with my son. What a gift this will be to him as he begins his artistic career!! Thank you!

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The dottiest teacher in my high school, who often showed up with her dress inside-out, once caught me laughing at another student’s work. I had a secret crush on this boy and was punishing him not only for his florid prose but for failing to notice my existence. The teacher yanked me into the hall by my collar and gave me a piece of her mind: “Don’t you ever—EVER—make fun of anyone’s writing! That boy is in love with words, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

The teacher was Georging me (“Kindness is the only acceptable response to the human condition”). As a teacher of literature, she was only so-so, but she had a gift for teaching life. I think of her often with affection and gratitude.

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When I was 15, my mum left my dad, and somehow I got left behind with him, his slightly unhinged sister and his demented dying mother. I was naughty at school ( in a small way, slamming my desk lid, swearing under my breath etc). The young Spanish teacher spoke to me after class and asked me what was the matter. All I could think of to say was: I hate having breakfast on my own. Gradually she unpicked what had happened. My dad was a vicar and deeply ashamed. He was certain Mum would come back so told no one.

Later that term for Spanish homework we were to write a poem in Spanish. I wrote 3 verses in 3 tenses (I know!) about a house on fire and a girl in it. How utterly transparent but of course I didn’t see it at all at the time. On speech day an annual prize -the Potter prize for poetry was awarded. This was announced on the day. So I was amazed when my name was announced and the Spanish teacher came forward to read the poem in her beautiful pronounciation. Luckily no one understood it. But I loved that teacher so much. It was her first job and somehow she looked beneath the prickly exterior and saved me.

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That which does not George us, makes us stronger...

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Probably the most effective version of the age-old writing advice "The only way to become a writer is to write" that I think I've read. Life as a mentor: seems like a pretty good position from which to live. Thanks George!

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First, I’m moved to mention George’s comment on Story Club being a holistic kind of mentor in and of itself. This vibe you (George) have fostered serves much the same role to all us lonely anxious writers as we cross the wilderness that is the blank page. It’s not just the technical instruction and the deep, incisive reading we are prompted to do; it’s the sense of communal support. Also, you (George) have lightened the burden of the whole business of artistic neuroses that inevitably accompany any serious artistic endeavor. The attitude, the “this isn’t a life or death thing” approach, has been extremely additive for me. To say it is whimsical seems to cheapen it, but there is that sense. We’re here to develop our talent, any way we can, and your this-can-be-fun

approach is a great place to start. So thank you, George, and all other clubbers.

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I've had my share of helpful mentors, and some real jerks, too. But one in particular probably didn't even know the influence he had on me. He was my freshman comp professor, in my first semester in college, long before I became an English major and declared, like Garp, that I would be a writer. I took freshman comp, despite taking AP English because my AP English teacher in high school encouraged me NOT to take the AP Exam. As an impressionable and shy young man who looked up to his elders and teachers with respect, I followed her advice and didn't take the test. All my friends did and passed and didn't have to take freshman comp.

Later in life I realized, "My AP English teacher told me to give up, to not try. Of all the...." Thanks, thanks a lot. I would learn not to do that to myself again nor to my own students.

This freshman comp teacher (a lecturer or T.A., perhaps, probably working on his PhD.) was a kind man, young, probably in his early 30s, old to me at 17. I was the ace grammarian in the class - passed the test worth 50% of my grade with a score of 102 out of 100.

But for the writing portion of the class, I wrote cliched, hackneyed drivel.

I was coaching little league baseball at the time and taking Coaching Baseball as a college course. I wasn't good enough to play, but I wanted to be around the game. Baseball was truly my first love. So I wrote about little league games for my freshman comp papers. I saw those papers 30 years later in boxes of keepsakes that my parents kept for years while cleaning their house after they died.

"Three and two count, bottom of the ninth, a hush grows over the crowd. The pitcher looks in for a sign. He shakes him off." - You can see where this is going.

This teacher asked me to a conference. He said (and I'm paraphrasing words I don't remember from 40 years ago) "I like baseball and sports writing as well as anyone. But what's with the cliches? There's nothing in that paper that belongs to you. It's everything bad about sports writing, the pat expression, the predictable events. Using fresh language will help you to be a better writer. I can see you have talent, and passion for your subject, but you need to freshen up your writing."

I'm sure my eyes were glazing over in that "teacher doesn't like my writing" kind of way, because he said, and this I do remember: "You may not get this now. But five years from now, something will click, and you will understand."

I took my B in the course and later met the man who would become my true mentor and became an English major, which then led me to becoming a teacher.

Five years after my freshman comp, at the ripe old age of 22, I was teaching my first class as a TA with full charge of a freshman English class at the University of New Mexico. As I struggled with a class full of writers committed to finding the best cliches, and the most, something in my head clicked about "freshening your writing." (I think I was teaching the famous essay by Paul Roberts, "How to Say Nothing in 500 Words.")

With that click, I remembered my freshman comp professor. It took five years until I was ready to hear what he had to say. I reached back through the years and said my silent "thanks" to the sky.

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Some of the "disasters" turned into learning you recount strike me as another example of the wisdom of an aphorism attributed to John Wooden that was embedded in a novel I read recently: Things tend to turn out best for those who make the best of how things turn out.

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It’s wild how often I’m brought to tears in this club. I just finished the post and the essay.

I remember first wanting a mentor when I was in high school and it continued until, well, not that long ago. When I was younger, I think I mostly wanted to be seen. I wanted someone to see potential in me and want to be part of helping it grow. I’d see peers being “taken under a wing” and think, but what about me?

I could be rather vulnerable and self-conscious at times. It was all tied up in my very fragile ego.

Ego has been on my mind in the last year or years or so. I’ve been searching out ways to tame my own ego. It keeps me from taking or giving criticism with grace. It makes me overconfident when praised, less forgiving of others.

When I see aside my ego, I’m more generous. What I receive from others becomes added joy rather than a dependence.

I see a tamed Ego in Doug listening to the student who needed to be heard. A tamed ego in Toby not shying away from criticism, but using it to teach his students. Generosity of spirit that I hope to near.

I taught classes in grad school. I was so green, kind of lazy and definitely not very generous. It didn’t help that I had a regular booth at a dive bar where I would get a pitcher of beer and grade. My comments got less, well, helpful, the lighter the pitcher. My poor students deserved better.

I had so much I wanted to remember to comment on while reading all of this, but I was in the car dealership waiting room without a notebook.

I do remember two things though:

1) I haven’t submitted a question for office hours. If I did, it would be: WHAT WAS THE DIALOGUE ADVICE FROM DOUG??! Sorry for yelling, but that’s how it was in my head.

2) Just a fun comment: My folks also met, were engaged three weeks later (on the third date), and married a year later. They just celebrated their 50th anniversary. I guess when you know, you know.

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This is a warm slap on the back to keep on. Thank you.

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What a wonderful response to an equally wonderful question, so thank you George and anonymous Story Club member. I really appreciate naming the essential qualities of how so many of us show up here and that being the place we can approach our writing and life, with humility and curiosity. Thanks for this!

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I think a lot of people misinterpret Mentor with pal or buddy. They want someone to hold their hand a bit and gently push them forward with sage advice and encouragement. A thoughtless comment by a professor or colleague or teacher of guitar that is demeaning oftentimes says more about the professor or colleague or teacher of guitar than it does the actual person they are directing their criticism upon. My daughter has received thoughtless “counsel” from her current school in Colorado, the School of Mines. Some of it is gender related which really gets my goat. Not all comments, however innocent, are helpful in life and can derail optimism, which we need so badly. I do try to protect her optimism.

It seems to me George that you carried this off handed comment made to you when you were a bright, hopeful 18 year old, all the way here into your 60’s. I am the same age as you. I have done the same. Perhaps your post triggered a memory for me. It reminds me why I love your writing so much. It’s not only beautiful, but is brutally honest but still gentle and kind. Which is a rarity in this universe.

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