I have a question for you about mentors. I believe you mentioned, in a recentish post, having a trusted editor with whom you work. Along similar lines, I was wondering what, if any, role mentors have played in your career. If you have answered or commented on this elsewhere, please accept my embarrassed apology!
In some ways, you are mentoring all of us in Story Club. I am grateful for your generosity, and I am sure I am not alone in turning your name into a verb, as, e.g., recently re one of my stories: "I need to go back in and George that one."
I am in an MFA and I love my peers and professors. I participate in a couple of writers' groups that are offshoots of my program. But I still feel weirdly mentorless. And I sometimes wish for a good old grey-eyed Athena in disguise at my side.
If you have any wisdom or experience to share regarding your own experience of mentors (people who have made a difference in your writing life) or if you have any thoughts on how important (or not) such a person might be, would you share them with us?
Yes, and thank you for this question.
I truly do hope that I’m providing some mentoring via Story Club. I actually think that we are all co-mentoring here, in this sense: we discuss stories at a high level, in a generous spirit, and this gives each of us, no matter where we find ourselves in our respective artistic journeys, something to react to, against which to test our views.
The Club itself is the mentor.
If we think of it like that, we can see how much one’s attitude toward the potential mentor is key.
One of the things I’ve come to love about this Story Club community is its generosity. From where I sit, it feels like people show up here with the right attitude for any artistic endeavor, which is, “I bet there’s something for me to learn here.” This doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t already know quite a lot. But she has reverence for the importance and difficulty of the task and knows at some level that showing up in a curious, humble, friendly spirit, she’s more likely to return home with something of value.
And I think this attitude translates to real-world mentors as well.
Here’s an idea I’ve found helpful: our talent is real and it’s sitting there inside of us. It’s smart and eager – eager to get going, and try some things, and grow. It just sometimes needs a little help activating. Sometimes that activation comes in the form of encouragement (“Keep going!”). Other times it comes in the form of strictness (“This is going to need rewriting”). But I find it helpful to think of my talent as being powerful and energetic and…willing – an entity that will grow and develop almost on its own, if I just let it out to play, with some consistency.
So, this takes the pressure off. I can just assume the best of my talent. It’s not delicate, it doesn’t need to be handled with kid gloves or given just the right food or light or any of that. It’s vigorous and forgiving. In fact, I sometimes find myself having (or trying to have) this thought: it literally doesn’t matter what I do or what my life looks like, or what choices I make about where I live or what my job is, as long as I keep working, my talent will assume its full form.
Now, is this literally true? Probably not. Some lives, and certain periods of our lives, are probably more conducive to good work than others. But trying to cultivate this mindset has been helpful to me at times when I didn’t have very many choices – when work was crowding out writing, for example. I could just cheerfully, and with good faith, say: “Don’t worry, this (even this) is going to work to my talent’s advantage. ”
And maybe we could apply a similar idea to our mentors; they don’t need to be perfect; they don’t need to be designated mentors; they don’t have to even know that they’re mentors of ours.
Rather, it’s our insistence on making progress that converts someone into a mentor.
We once had a guest teacher at Syracuse, filling in for me while I was on leave. The day after the first class I got a call from this teacher, saying the class had been a disaster – the students were arrogant and willful. She wasn’t sure she could work with them. Then the students started calling. The teacher was no good; she had made all sorts of demands of them, had disallowed the practice of starting a story with a proper noun, had made them read aloud and would stop them when she heard something unacceptable, and many of them hadn’t gotten beyond the first few sentences of their stories. They were hurt and angry. And this was after one class. And the complaints flew all semester; things never really settled down, no one was every really happy.
Then, the next fall, I got that same group in my workshop and good Lord, were they wonderful. They’d been fire-tested by this teacher, made to think about what they believed in fiction, what they’d fight for. This teacher had made them consider things they’d never considered before. Each student had become markedly more like themselves, I might say; this teacher had sped them along their respective paths, by being difficult and seemingly arbitrary. It had been no fun for anybody.
And yet, there they were, converted into better writers through the experience. Was that person now a mentor of theirs?
Oh boy, you bet.
I like also the idea that mentorship can happen on a long time-delay, or in unexpected, even painful forms.
I once had a guitar teacher say to me, after hearing me play an audition piece: “If you don’t change your way of living, you are going to be a very unhappy adult.” Talk about painful! I didn’t know what he meant and was so mad at him that I quit after that first round of lessons, which I’d already paid for. And I took that sentence out into the world with me, and it haunted me for years. I still think he was a terrible teacher – but, turns out, he was a decent mentor. Because years later, once I’d found prose, my real form, that sentence, softened by years of mulling it over, started to say something to me that I could hear, which was: “You can’t be careless or sloppy or phone in your art or try to conceal defects in it with surface flash. You have to go deeper than that and work harder.” Do I wish he had been gentler and more skillful in his delivery of that message? Of course. Because I think I would have been capable of hearing that message there and then, had it been gently delivered.
But years later, just as I was starting to sense that truth for myself, through my writing practice, that sentence lit up in my head and had a confirming effect. And my residual anger and hurt converted into something like determination, and now – some forty-five years later, I can send a very soft, very conditional “thank you” in his direction.
But of course, the best mentors are the ones we love, who see us and treat us with respect and hope. I wrote about this type of mentorship in a piece for The New Yorker a few years ago:
And here it is, I hope, as a pdf.
This piece also appeared in a wonderful anthology on this topic of mentors and mentoring, "A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors," edited by two wonderful former students of mine, Jeff Parker and Annie Liontas, and published by the University of Massachusetts Press, a book I highly recommend.
If we try to consider all the experiences we have while writing as forms of mentoring, then….they will be. Rejection can teach us, acceptance can; an indifferent teacher can, as can a teacher who loves what we’re doing. A dry spell can teach us, a personal loss can, a brilliant, beautiful period can, a new love, a lost love – you name it. Our talent (we are going to assume) is always alert, absorbing everything, being altered and tuned by whatever happens.
Every wall we hit, every updraft we experience, every fragment of praise or hurtful rudeness is doing some work on our talent. It’s up to us, whether the effect is going to ultimately be corrosive or additive.
This is, by the way, one of those “self-gaming” techniques I’m always talking about. The idea is that, if we train ourselves to think in this way, we’ll get better results and will steer clear of the neurotic worry-loops in which we writers sometimes tend to get stuck.
So, I’d say, we want to be on the alert for mentors. We have to kind of…invite them in. We are playfully converting everything into a mentor. We might try to understand the whole artistic experience as an adventure, not a trial. We are trying to find out about our talent, about its flavor and its strengths and weaknesses; about where it likes to go and about the places it isn’t built to go. What we’re not doing is, you know, awaiting, with dread, the fatal verdict. “You have it!” or “You don’t have it!”
We can’t know how good we are until we do the work. And doing the work is the only way to find out how good we are (that is, what we have to offer the world).
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! 😂 )
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.