Close your eyes and imagine sitting down to meet with your mentor. What are you working on? Is your mentor a friend, a teacher, a boss or something else altogether? If you’re like most people — mentors and mentees alike — you’re not really sure what’s going to happen. That’s because mentorship is a sticky thing. It’s difficult to define.
Sure, the dictionary defines mentor as a “wise and trusted counselor or teacher.” But how does that translate into the real world?
Do you choose a mentor and show up one day to ask “Hey, help me with this will you?” Or do you wait for someone to come to you and say “I am your mentor. I will give you advice”? Nope, mentoring relationships grow gradually, sometimes years later a dawning realization creeps up on you. “Oh yes, you’ve always been my mentor. I didn’t realize it until now.”
Even so, no one mentor can meet every need. No one person knows everything, and it would be too much responsibility to even expect it. That’s why it’s important to reach out to many people so you can learn and grow in your writing career.
In no particular order, I give you the five kinds of mentors every writer needs.
The Mentor Who Pushes You Out of Your Comfort Zone
That’s what Ms. Oliver did for me. From the minute she walked into our eighth-grade class, we knew she wouldn’t take any shit. There was no way to copy homework or skip the readings. She forced us to examine our opinions and back them up in writing. “Is that what you believe, Ms. Shulman? Are you sure?” I slumped in my seat, shuffled my feet. Did I really mean what I said? I didn’t know.
The day after a parent-teacher conference, she asked me to stay after class. “What?” I wondered. “I hear you’re bored in my class,” she related her meeting with my mom. “Let’s see if we can do something about that.”
“I can’t believe you did that,” I whined to at my mom. “Now I owe her a whole extra paper every single week.”
My parents didn’t believe Ms. Oliver was out to punish me. I wasn’t so sure. I couldn’t copy from an encyclopedia like other classes. She made me verify every statement I wrote through rational argument or support from other writers.
Yet, I enjoyed choosing my own topics, and she let me write in whatever style I wanted. In return, she asked questions, asked me to deepen my argument, lent me books that might be useful. She treated my works as if she actually wanted to read what I had to say.
I loved writing those papers for her class. Never before had anyone treated my written opinions as if they mattered.
The Mentor Who Teaches You Skills
Nancy Kline Piore had been places and done things. She traveled, spoke fluent French and when she talked literature, I didn’t understand. Oh, I had so much to learn. So there I sat, wide-eyed and overwhelmed in my first-year college writing seminar. The goal of her class? To teach us to write college level papers.
“We’re going to do an explication,” she announced one day. “You’re going to love this.” I nodded my head along with everyone else as if I knew how to explicate a text. We chose one paragraph of a book from class and line-by-line analyzed it Once the analysis was finished, we then placed the paragraph in context with the rest of the book and show how that short piece represents the narrative as a whole.
Good lord, how does one do that?
At first, I just summarized the paragraph. No, that wasn’t right. Analysis. I pored over those stupid words. Every time I thought I had a clue, the strands of whatever ideas slipped away and my eyes would blur in frustration.
Explications, pastiches, literary analysis, annotated bibliographies and class discussions forced us to see beyond the story to the themes, histories, and patterns of literature. It is these patterns, by the way, that help you when you write a book. Without seeing the shape of your book, it’s impossible to craft a working structure.
Nancy also taught me to trust in my own writing process.
If you’ve ever attended a workshop of mine, this will sound familiar. Writing doesn’t spring fully-formed from your head. Instead, you add, create, edit, free write and use all those tools to move a bit at a time toward a final piece of writing. Along the way, you’ll fear you’re not good enough. You’ll lose confidence that no one wants to read what you’re saying. You’ll nitpick every word wondering if this is perhaps the right one, the wrong one, the one that unveils you as the failure you really are.
Of course, when it was time for me to name my online writing academy, the one where I teach writing skills as well as how to make a living as a writer, it was a no-brainer to call it The Writer’s Process.
The Mentor Who Gives Honest (Gentle) Criticism
This person, let’s call him YKW because he prefers his privacy, is like a father to me. He was the first to visit us after my daughter was born. He’s the one whose advice kept me writing through both pregnancies. But don’t expect him to read a piece of your writing and say “I love this! This is great.”
YKW gives criticism. Usually distilled into one clear, compact sentence. “This story doesn’t have an end.” Or “It doesn’t make sense what that character is doing what she does.”
“Why don’t you ever say what you like?” I asked him one day.
“Good and bad are opinions,” he replied. “They don’t help you improve the writing. Better I tell you what’s working and what’s not. If you want compliments on your work,” he told me, “Don’t come to me.”
To this day, YKW’s words echo in my head when I edit. “Be like a butcher.” You write your first draft to get it down, and then you butcher it, cut it, tear out all the pieces that don’t belong no matter how much you love them.
He taught me that the best art mirrors the world. Art endures for ages because it lays bear simple human truth. When I work with writers, I always ask, “What is this about?” I don’t want to know the plot. I don’t want to know what your characters do. I want to know how you want your readers to feel. What you want your readers to understand when they close the last page of your book?
The Mentor Who Encourages You When You Want to Give Up
As part of my MA program at City College, I took a novel writing class with Linsey Abrams. Each week, we read two novels-in-progress from others in the class and gave feedback. Anyone who has ever written a book knows how hard it is to place your writing on the altar of other people’s opinions. You hope for rave reviews, but if not, kindness will do. My novel received neither.
“I’ll be honest with you,” let’s call him John began. “I couldn’t get through the first fifty pages,” But he didn’t stop there. “This is awful. I’d never read it, and I can’t imagine anyone would ever read this.” He leafed through the photocopied pages I’d given him, shaking his head.
After John, I blanked out what anyone else said about my book. I just sat there with a smile plastered on my face thinking, “I suck. So much for this writing thing.”
Soon after, Linsey invited me to lunch at the City College faculty dining hall. We got on the topic of publishing and submitting work.
“All these mediocre men,” she told me. “They aren’t doing anything particularly different or interesting, yet they publish and win awards because they believe they are fantastic. They submit; they send; they push themselves out there.”
Women, she added, are more likely to doubt themselves.
“You should apply for a Fulbright scholarship,” she told me. “A Fulbright?” I replied without thinking. “I’ll never get that.”
Her eyebrow shot up. “You see?” she said.
Because of Linsey, I applied. I didn’t get the Fulbright, but every time doubt creeps in, I think of Linsey. Submit. Send your work into the world. Apply for grants, because hiding behind doubt gets you exactly nowhere and nothing.
The Mentor Who Opens Your Eyes & Widens Your World
I won a New York Times writing fellowship in grad school based on a short story I wrote about a Jewish family. The fellowship coordinators wanted to pair me with another Jewish writer in the department. I preferred not to work with him because of the uncomfortable way he rubbed his belly against me when we chatted in the hallways. They connected me with Ed instead.
Ed didn’t particularly want to mentor me, he admitted once we got to know each other. “Who needs to work with another privileged white girl?” he thought. I guess I showed up differently? Or maybe he accepted that I was a white girl who could maybe learn a bit from him?
Ed was born in Puerto Rico, moved to NYC when he was 8 years old and grew up in Spanish Harlem. He raised pigeons on the rooftop of his building and skipped school to hide in the public library reading. City College gave him a place to get the formal education he started on his own. His book Family Installments explores what it means to be Latino, an immigrant and to live in northern Manhattan pre-1980s.
Ed taught me to read bilingual authors without changing the language and culture. He corrected me with incredible kindness and humor. Through Ed, I realized why I needed to read my favorite book, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in Spanish, which meant, I had to learn Spanish first.
When you want to write about subjects beyond your personal experience, you want a mentor just like Ed to guide you.
I’m still in touch with these mentors, with the exception of Ed who passed away in 2001, but there are more who supported and helped me with my writing and career. This is why each year, I run my own Writing Mentor Exchange. I want to offer you and others the benefits I’ve received from mentors, because I know how hard it is to find mentors who are ready and willing to offer their time and expertise.