On Finding a Writing Mentorship
Earlier this month, my blog post on “10 Things Emerging Writers Need to Learn” was widely read. The comments were overwhelmingly supportive, and I really appreciate all the retweets and shares and all those other social media terms that I can’t remember. Those were/are wonderful, and I hope the post was helpful. But one comment was made, somewhere (Facebook?) that I thought was really interesting, and got me thinking about what has become, ultimately, today’s post.
The poet Sandra Beasley wrote “I would like to read an essay about the art of procuring and sustaining even one mentor. It’s a lot harder than hurling a book across a room.” She’s absolutely right. Mentorship is … well, I mean, where the great googlymoogly do you begin? Not by throwing a poet across the room. I mean, can you imagine throwing Franz Wright across the room? Dude looks like he weighs a ton.
Okay, bad jokes aside: What is a mentor for a young or emerging (not mutually exclusive) writer? What is the dynamic of that relationship? How does one actively find a mentor?
I’ve been on both ends of this dynamic. I’ve been an undergraduate and graduate student of creative writing, and looked toward my professors to give me a sense of direction with both my writing and my career, which is often intertwined. In the last few years, I’ve also become a mentor to a few Mizzou students. I’m not sure that I entirely know how to tackle this subject, so sorry about the stumbling and bumbling that is about to commence here.
Mentorship, to me, is not friendship. A mentorship can be a friendship, of course, but it’s certainly not required. A few years ago, I read an article on adult male friendships, and how rarely men make new friendships once they graduate college, that most of their adult “friendships” revolve around work and, eventually, a marriage, where the interaction with his spouse, children, and other parents makes those relationships. But men cling (ouch, dangerous verb there…) to the friendships they made in college and high school in a way that women do not. Generally speaking, women are better at making friendships in adulthood than men.
I spent about an hour poking around online with various Google searches on mentorship. Much of the advice comes from the business world and generally strikes me as distasteful. The business angle is, unsurprisingly, slickly packaged in an Ayn Rand frame of mind: what can you do for me so I can one day usurp your position and power? Kinda like Game of Thrones, only more illogical.
All emerging writers need mentorship. For the endless debate about MFA programs and the myth of the solitary genius, I’ve yet to met an artist, of any kind, that has worked in complete and total isolation.
While several of my Ohio State professors meant a tremendous amount to my writing, when I think of mentorship, I think of Stephanie Grant. Her classroom presence was different from the other teachers: more professional, less relaxed, soft spoken but serious, inquisitive about the stories, and remarkably patient. It wasn’t just what I learned from her explicitly, but that she carried herself in a way that I wanted to carry myself. I would never be the hippie with soul patch and sandals. She was a person who I wanted to emulate. I read her novel, The Passion of Alice, which I loved, and started bringing her additional drafts of my stories.
This last part is key: I was doing extra work because I wanted to, and she was willing to read these draft. Thanks to the fact that these old drafts are saved on my laptop, I can see that my “drafts” and “revisions” weren’t really, at all, true reconsiderations of the narrative. Changed a bit here, a bit there, and it was “different.” I didn’t know any better. But, the thing is, Stephanie read them. And she talked to me about them as if they were serious revisions. Which, they were, at least, as far as I knew what a “serious revision” meant at the time. She didn’t push me, but the door was always open to me. None of this was a conscious decision when I was 21. Stephanie just helped a young eager writer who didn’t know how much he didn’t know.
In graduate school, my mentor was Mary Troy. Her expertise is the short story, which is what I was most interested in when I got to graduate school. She explained to me how things work in an English Department (I had no idea) and what teaching was like, the students, publishing. I wasn’t just a person who wanted to write, but also someone who needed to learn how academia worked. Not only did I not know, I did not know I would be interested in finding out. But something stuck, obviously, since I’ve been working at universities ever since.
One of my friends told me about her experience in her MFA program, and how she had this really wonderful relationship with an older poet. This established poet was a great mentor to my friend … until she graduated from the program. Then? Nothing. No contact at all, as if this established poet felt her job was done. Mary has never done that. She checks in on me now and again, sees how my writing is, my career, and while never explicitly saying I should do this or that, has maintained an interest in my work long after it does any good for her. She just wants to do so.
Richard Newman, the editor of River Styx, is another important mentor. He showed me everything about how a literary magazine works and stays afloat: grant writing, board meetings, press releases, database management, what a great reading series looks like, staying involved in your community, and how to do it all while both taking it seriously and having a sense of humor about the whole thing. He also was a basketball junkie like me, a drinking buddy, and a great friend. I screwed up a lot at work, which he (for the most part) pointed out gently, and dealt with the ups and downs of my moods over the five years we worked together. Like Stephanie and Mary, I still hear from him regularly, evenly though I left River Styx almost four years ago.
Since I’ve been at Mizzou, I’ve mentored a handful of students. This happened, it seemed to me, relatively organically. With TMR offering an internship all three semesters, there are always emerging writers coming through our halls who are trying to figure out how to get to the Next Thing, whatever that might be for them. One of my roles at the magazine is to find roles for others, so I ask the students about what they are doing, what they are interested in, and get a feel for what kind of writing they do or if they want to work in publishing. I don’t know what Stephanie or Mary or Richard saw in me, but what I do know is that they were open to such a relationship.
I’ve been lucky enough to be at a university for most of this time, and this environment is inherently open to mentorships. Whatever criticisms are out there of universities and writing programs—and there are valid ones and plenty of them—most of us are here because we like to teach. We’re open doors, you know? But this makes it really easy. What does one do if you aren’t associated with a university?
Let’s assume for a moment one is completely isolated. Write letters to your favorite authors. Expect very little. But it’s interesting to me how many literary mentorships have started this way; one person sits down, tries to write a letter that doesn’t gush too much, it gets answered, and off they go. Again, like any level of mentorship, expectations have to be tempered. You know, don’t be a psycho and all that. Mentorships don’t happen overnight, but simply making the step to reach out to someone and say “Hey, I dig your work” is a good start.
Another step is to be involved in your literary community. While there are certainly parts of this country where you’re in the middle of nowhere and there is nobody around, I would guess for most of us, this isn’t entirely true. There is probably a good library (digression: what public libraries have done to remake themselves over the last two decades has been really amazing) that has events that bring in local and outside authors. There is also likely a reading series in your area. Just start going. No expectations, but check the calendars, go to these events, and keep your eyes and ears open. Do you want to running a reading series? What does that take? What makes a good author event?
I’m pessimistic that a true mentorship can happen online. This is probably a separate blog post, so I’ll keep it short: the Web is great for making connections and social media is wonderful, but there seems to me to be a limit to what this interaction can achieve. Just a hunch, nothing more, nothing less. Correct me if I’m wrong.
What makes for a good mentorship, like defining what makes a friendship or relationship work, is hard to pinpoint: it’s specific to the people involved. But I’d like to think that most of us are open to it. Writing is about communication, with a belief that what you have to write is valuable not just to yourself but your readers (whoever and wherever they might be). Because of this inherent quality to what we do, whatever our level of shyness or fear in our social interactions, we need relationships to sustain, both as people and as writers. They are out there. We just need to be open to these people in our lives. You never know where they are going to walk through your door.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Why The Elephants Teach
You’ve probably seen this fantastic video demonstrating that if you ask a teacher “What do you make?” you might get an answer. It’s a funny, sincere, delightful response to a rude dinner party question, and it gets the round of applause and cheers and hoots and hollers that it undoubtedly deserved.
Great timing too: of late, it was re-posted on Facebook several times by a wide-range of my friends at a time when I was thinking hard about why I teach (taught?) in the first place. Last week, several incoming PhD candidates had arrived at Mizzou to get a feel for Columbia and decide if this is really a place they want to spend the next six years (answer: yes!) of their lives. Incoming candidates teach. Current candidates teach. My professors teach. My friends teach. My students want to teach.
My first teaching job came, as most adjunct work does, because somebody knew me. This was Christmas of 2005, and I was in New Jersey with my family, checking my email sporadically. I had three emails from my mentor, Mary Troy, who is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The emails changed from polite inquiry (email #1) to a gentle nudge (email #2) to mild indignation (“If you aren’t interested in the job, just say so”). Slow down, Mary: it’s Christmas! I wrote back, said I would love to teach a class called “Writing the Short-Short Story” in Washington University’s Univeristy College (whatever that was, which at the time, I had never heard of), and sure enough, two weeks later, I was teaching a class.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? This was for the spring semester and an evening class, so I walked up from the parking lot when it was cold and dark out, slipping around that beautiful campus and across the Brookings Quadrangle, mildly spooked by how quiet the campus was at night, no matter how nicely the walkways were lit. My classroom was in Ridgley Hall and on the fourth floor, where, inexplicably, the ceilings are too low, making me feel as if I were trying to enter Malkovich’s head. Thrown into the mix, nervous and pouring sweat down my ribcage, I overdressed for the first class, and my voice frequently caught and cracked. Unable to decide if I was going to stand, or sit, or sit on the desk, or some combination of these things and others, as if any of that even mattered, I moved stiffly around the room as if my knees ached. This first class had thirteen students: half of the students were from the day school at WashU, and the other half were labeled “non-traditional.” Weird to have half the class older than me, but that’s what happens when you’re a twenty seven year old teacher. We all have to start somewhere, and I just remembered the best advice I got about being a first-time teacher: they are more scared of you than you are of them.
In the end, my first class went great. My students wrote several stories and short exercises, read a ton of published work out of anthologies, made insightful and considerate comments in our discussions, and I believe that at the end of the semester, whether or not they continued to write, my students had gained something valuable about how to read and write that would stay with them long after they forget my class and my name.
Every semester after, I picked up more teaching work. I continued to teach flash fiction writing at WashU, and also snagged a regular ol’ writing workshop one summer (enrollment: 5). At Missouri-St. Louis, I taught at the Pierre Laclede Honors College, which is almost like its own world, tucked away in the southeastern corner of the main campus. For the Honors College, I taught junior-level composition and creative writing. I was given the freedom to teach a range of creative writing classes, from beginning fiction writing to intermediate to first-person narrative. I also taught in the MFA program at Lindenwood University, too, all while working as the managing editor at River Styx.
I was probably an average teacher. I don’t know. This doesn’t seem like the time or place to discuss the teacher evaluation system or what I did and did not do for my students. Or maybe it is and I’m just not interested. What I’m interested in is why I made the decision to teach; moreover, why do others teach?
At the time, I’m not sure I gave a tremendous amount of thought to this. The conventional wisdom I heard from other writers-slash-professors is that teaching gives the writer time to write because teaching a class that meets three to four hours a week gives the writer lots of free time. Three or four classes, plus office hours, means that you might be able to get away with working twenty hours a week, which is half of what the corporate world works, which means more writing time. This is good, right?
Only, it never seemed to work that way for me. I’m sure those of you that teach and have read this far are clucking tongues and ruefully laughing. Teaching isn’t easy. Teaching doesn’t pay in the summer, and, well, bills are still due in June, July, and August. Most of us start as adjuncts (or should that read “more” of us?) and getting those jobs that have a light load and huge salaries … oh, wait, those don’t really exist for the vast majority of us, do they? Plus, really, who actually only works a job’s explicit hours? Most Sunday nights, I was up thinking, writing, and prepping what I was going to say on Monday for a class I’d taught each of the last two semesters. Teachers never really stop working. And that can be exhausting.
Hey, this isn’t to suggest that teaching is all bad. It isn’t. I certainly liked it, and still do. But as with any job, it can become a grind, and that’s when you start looking for the things that make your job worthwhile, make it significant, make it something you genuinely care about rather than just a paycheck. For me, that was always the one-on-one, the mentorship, with a promising young writer. I know that for me, the attention given to my work by those first teachers at Ohio State was what got me back to writing, back to graduate school, got me publishing stories, and writing a novel.
There are several students I could name here that showed exceptional drive and wrote terrific stories, and even better, continued to do so even after they were done with my classes. But, recently, a first happened: one of my students, Fred Venturini, has published his first novel: The Samaritan.
Fred was a student of mine at Lindenwood University’s MFA program. He is my age and had been writing stories for years before his wife encouraged him to go get his MFA. Fred said: yeah, sure. His stories were energetic, funny, horrific, bizarre, tender, and vulnerable. They took risks; they failed and they succeeded. What Fred had, what stood out so much, was energy. You wouldn’t think sitting at a desk and tapping on a keyboard is exhausting, but it can be, particularly when you’re trying to be creative, fresh, see the world anew. And Fred could keep up. He read voraciously. He wrote fiercely, constantly. He was a sharp critic in workshop, acknowledging what worked and freely admitting if something stumped him, giving as much to his classmates as he gave to his own work.
This energy and curiosity is what made it possible for Fred to not just write his first novel, but actually finish it: proof the pages, edit the pages, re-imagine the story, and get it out there in the world. The Samaritan is, to me, a quintessential “Fred story”:
Dale Sampson lives in isolation, hiding a super-human gift that could change the course of human history—a gift he believes he doesn’t deserve. He is unemployed and unmotivated—a fractured friendship, love lost, and the tragedies of childhood have locked him in place. Empty days tick away until a chance encounter with a woman from his past sets in motion one last shot at redemption and love—a spiral of small-town violence that will end a thousand miles away, with his flesh as the battleground, and millions will tune in to watch.
There are many terrific moments in the book. But the one for me is when Dale and his friend Mack watch Dale’s house burn down. I won’t give away how the narrative gets to this point, but it’s a crucial moment between two friends: a quiet anger between them as they watch the houses literally crumbles in the flames, and a major decision is made about what Dale has to do next. As soon as I finished the chapter (nope, didn’t even wait to finish the book) I wrote Fred to tell him, yeah, man, that scene: perfect.
What did I have to do with this? Very little. A good writing teacher just gives his or her student a nudge in the right direction. We give them the tools, show them how to wield them (with a few creative ways that we, personally, wield those tools), and then based on what the student does with his or her writing and what we know about the canon and contemporary literature, we then point in a direction, saying “That’s your path. Thataway!” That’s all we do. But is that going to stop me from bragging about Fred’s work?
Of course not.
Teachers complain. Especially at the end of the semester. But, hey, we all do, no matter what our job might be. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. I didn’t plan on teaching. I didn’t plan on many things over the last couple of years that have turned out just fine. Often, when we’re stuck in the middle of a particular hellish point in our professions, we lose site of why we do what we do. Now, here in the middle of the semester, spring arriving and turning my attention out the window rather than to the work on my desk, I need a reminder of why. For me, that was reading The Samaritan, a book I finished in days not weeks, a book written by a writer who figured it out on his own, the first of many accomplishments from a writer I’m very proud to call my friend.
So: thank you, Fred, for reminding me why I teach.
Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review.