Ask for What You Want: On Mentoring

One of our editors recently asked me about creative writing workshops and mentoring. I’m in a PhD program in creative writing, so I’ve had plenty of workshop experiences, good and not so good. No matter how many workshops I’ve attended, though, none of them have paralleled the mentoring I’ve received in working one-on-one with writers.

Mentoring has come in both little and large doses for me—anywhere from a single afternoon of coffee and earnest conversation, to a relationship that spans many years. People are often generous with their time, but unless you’re part of a formal mentoring relationship, the process of finding a mentor can seem quite mysterious. At the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Baltimore, MD, in 2003, I attended a panel on mentorship. The panelists included several writers and the professor who had mentored them all. All of the writers had gone on to become teachers and mentors themselves, and their presentation was full of practical advice for finding a mentor.

The panelists explained that unless there is a formal mentoring program already in place, it’s the student’s job to initiate the relationship. If you’re waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder, it’ll probably never happen. It’s true that ultimately the mentor decides if they want to take on a new writer, but it is the student who begins the dialogue. In asking someone to be a mentor, it is important to be clear and to actually ASK for what you want, even if it’s difficult. One panelist described how she’d received a ride to the airport from a student. When the panelist got on the plane, she found a manuscript in her carry-on bag. The student hadn’t mentioned the manuscript and hadn’t asked for a reading of it—she was probably too intimidated.

Another point the former-student panelists made was that mentorship is a two-way relationship. They each gave examples of how they’d found skills or connections to offer their mentor. Not that they paid for the relationship or felt overly indebted, but they recognized a reciprocity that can be easy to overlook because of the initial difference in position. Usually the mentor does most of the giving in the beginning, but once you realize you have something to offer, such as a connection to a particular writer at a previous school or an inside track to the editor of a literary magazine, it is appropriate and beneficial to offer a more concrete form of gratitude to your mentor than just “Thanks.”

I heard this panel many years ago, but I’ve only had the courage a few times to actually reach out to other writers, asking for some form of mentorship. Just like asking for a date, it can be a blow when a potential mentor says no. I’ve gotten some rejections. As with submitting writing for publication, though, finding a mentor is often just a matter of timing, doing the homework, and finding the right fit. When it all comes together and you get those moments or hours of someone’s focused attention, it’s likely that what you learn about yourself and your writing will be worth it.