Guest Blog: Tara Yellen on Mentoring

[Tara Yellen is the author of the recently published novel After Hours at the Almost Home.]

My first semester of teaching, I was a graduate student in my early twenties at the University of Colorado. I’d arrived, I was certain, entirely prepared to teach.  I had articles and short stories — and an arsenal of exercises.  Exercises on objective detail.  Exercises on dialogue.  Exercises for free writing.

But, the second week of classes, a student surprised me at my office hours. She was a “nontraditional” student, in her forties, returning to school to work on her writing after raising a family. She was talented.  She was also crying. 

“Everything I write is awful,” she said. “I can’t get myself to turn it in.”

I was prepared with writing exercises.  Terrific exercises. There’s this one where you sit your class in front of the window and have them jot down observations of passersby.  It helps with description. But here was this woman, who’d had kids, spent years writing, older and wiser, asking me what to do. I was suddenly at a loss. Everything I write is awful. I’d been there so many times myself.

            And then, just as suddenly, I was transported.

            “Make it terrible,” I told her.

            She stopped crying and squinted. “What?”

            “Your next assignment.  Make it crappy.”

            She laughed at me.

            “I’m serious,” I said, and tried to look, if not older, than at least taller. ” If it’s good, I’m going to give it back and ask you to do it again.”

            It wasn’t an original suggestion. Many writing teachers use it. I got it from one of my earliest mentors. In fact, as my student stood there, red-eyed and confused in my cubicle, I could hear my teacher telling our class: Dare to be awful. Just get something down. All writers have shitty first drafts.

A moment of support, a small suggestion-and enormously freeing.

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had wonderful writing mentors throughout my life-first my parents (my mother always had a book in her hand and my father read poetry to me), and then through high school and college and graduate school. At UVa, my professors read the manuscript for After Hours at the Almost Home almost as many times as I did.  They guided and coached and coaxed me as I (somehow) extracted a novel from a jumble of character and idea. And there wasn’t just the writing itself that I needed help with. There was finding an agent, navigating the publishing process.  Figuring out how to make a living. Just reminding me it was possible.

My own mentoring has helped me enormously-certainly in the immediate sense that I’m reminding myself of new approaches, different things to try, but also in that it puts me outside myself, it give me another lens on the world. In addition to teaching, some years back, I helped run a mentoring program for middle school girls, and I was astounded by the difference just a few hours with a kid can make — for everyone involved.  Teachers can inspire and be inspired. In the best situations, it becomes a symbiotic relationship.

We no longer live in a world that automatically fosters young writers — instead we have dazzling, delicious pre-processed entertainment.  So, more than ever, I think, we have to create that world.

That student, we’re still in touch.  She has since coached me at least as much as I’ve coached her. And, as for that class, she’d been able to turn in her next assignment, after all — though it wasn’t crappy. It was actually pretty good. But, no, I didn’t make her redo it.  Dare to be good, I thought, and I felt it: both taller and older.