Death of a Mentor

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By Angie Netro

A little over a year ago, my writing mentor – Lester Goran – passed away.  I learned about his death by accident.  While sifting through mail sent to my childhood home, I found an Arts and Sciences magazine from my alma mater, the University of Miami.  Flipping through the magazine’s pages, I saw Professor Goran’s picture, then the year of this birth (1928), then the hyphen, then the year of his death (2014).

The last time I’d corresponded with Professor Goran was a year before, when I’d e-mailed him news of my Creative Writing PhD acceptance.  The last time I’d heard his voice was via phone a few months before that: when I’d asked him for a recommendation letter.  And the last time I’d seen him was ten years ago.  Before my MFA graduation, I sat in his office, crying, thanking him for everything he’d done for me and promising him that, one day, I would make him proud.

When Professor Goran taught me, he was already in his seventies: a tall, sturdy man, but his soft shuffle through the English Department announced his age.  I knew a sad truth; I might not have a lot of time to make him proud.  And, back then, making Professor Goran proud meant one thing: publication.  Making Professor Goran proud meant getting my stories out there in the world.

But then I graduated, moved home to Baltimore, began teaching composition full-time, disengaged from my first love, became engaged with someone else, nursed my grandmother through an aneurysm, stood alongside my mother while cancer took her life…and in all that time, about ten years, the only thing I published was a short piece of non-fiction, one featured in a now-defunct Baltimore magazine, a piece I didn’t even publish under my own name.  The pen name I chose: a pairing of my first name with Professor Goran’s.

But Lester, too, was a pen name.  I believe Professor Goran’s real first name was Sylvester.  I’d told him once how much I wanted to shed my last name and start anew, but Professor Goran insisted I keep my name as is: Angie Netro.  He never articulated his reasoning, but he often referred to me as a fusion of my first and last names: Angienetro.  He’d begun this habit when, as a University of Miami undergraduate, I’d taken his autobiography course.  Professor Goran had a reputation for being tough, for telling it like it is, for giving very little instruction.  Our first assignment in that class consisted of a few words: Write about your secret self.  And, after he’d read our pieces, he sat in front of the class, our essays in his hand.  From what I remember, he went through the essays, commenting on each one out loud.

“This is not so good,” he might say.

“Eh,” he might say about another.

I remember feeling petrified, dreading the moment he’d announce his thoughts about my work.  But then he fused my name for the first time: Angienetro.  Then he read my essay out loud.  Then he said something complimentary, something I wish I could remember, but everything he said in the years that followed I memorized as best I could:

Angienetro, you should keep writing.

Angienetro, you should take the next class I’m teaching.

Angienetro, you should apply to UM for your MFA.

There’s something magical that happens when someone believes in you.  A buoyancy that sustains you even after hard truths are told: Angienetro, this story’s not working.  Start over.  A kind of persistent, unconditional love, a love you never doubt: Angienetro, even when you screw up, I’ll forgive you.

In the ten years between my graduation and his death, I may have spoken to Professor Goran only three or four times.  One of those times was back in 2007, when my short non-fiction piece was published.  Back then, I remember thinking:  I’m so happy; I can talk to Professor Goran now.  Where this mindset came from…that communication with my mentor could only happen if I’d achieved something…I’m still working that out.  It certainly didn’t come from Professor Goran himself.  I can’t remember a single conversation with him about publishing, about publication.  This sentiment (success! then communication!) came from a place deep within myself, a place I still can barely explore.  But I will try.

A few months before Professor Goran’s death, my mother died.  On her last coherent day, she cupped my face with a bloated hand and said, “Angie, I will be so proud of you.”  Then she corrected herself: “I am.  I am so proud of you.”  My beautiful mother, my tough mother: what she said was an unfortunate slip of the tongue.  At that moment, her body was full of Zofran and Fentanyl and all other kinds of drugs, drugs that were helping her leave this life as peacefully as possible.  I know my mother was proud of me.  Of that I have no doubt.  But her last words reminded me of a pressure I had put on myself long, long ago.  A pressure that had come about because of my mother, but a pressure that had never come from her: as her only child, I wanted my life to somehow fix everything that had gone wrong with hers.  She never got the chance to go to college; I did.  She never really fell in love; I did.  She worked for years in a corporate job that never truly made her happy…I worked at writing, but was I a writer?  I’m still unsure about that.  And I guess because Professor Goran was my writing teacher, he became associated with that particular aspect of my life, and because I felt unsuccessful in that area, I only talked to him a few times after I graduated.  Back in 2007, when my short non-fiction piece was published, I thought Professor Goran would be proud of me and so I called.  After an hour’s conversation, I told him I’d talk to him soon, and he said in a soft voice, “Yeah, yeah.”  In other words: Angienetro, don’t say things you don’t mean.

On the phone in 2007, I imagined Professor Goran in his office.  I called on a Monday because, for the four years I knew him at Miami, I spent almost every Monday afternoon in his office, listening.  Only now do I realize: Professor Goran rarely talked about writing, about the craft of writing.  Instead, he’d tell me anecdotes about his life, about growing up in the slums of Pittsburgh.  He’d talk about things he’d seen on TV.  He adored HBO’s Six Feet Under.  He’d recount a scene from that show in precise detail, and then he’d end with a complimentary value judgment, one he’d never explain.  Only now do I see the ways he made me participate – analytically – both about the world and about myself.  When he bestowed compliments about me or about my writing, he never explained himself, letting me craft my own interpretation.  When he criticized, he never explained himself then, either.

Once, Professor Goran said, Angienetro, for such a smart girl, you really are stupid.  I honestly can’t remember the context in which he’d said this to me, but I do remember the comment was not intended to be mean; it was intended to instruct.  It was an honest statement, one from a generous, kind man who cared about me, who wished me the best, who always was my champion, even when I didn’t deserve it.  His comment did not reference intelligence, but character.  He was trying to help me; he was trying to warn me.  He saw in me something I’d yet to see in myself.  He wanted me to figure it out: “stupid” yet another judgment bestowed but never explained.

And on the day I learned of his death, I finally knew how right he’d been, how stupid I’d been.  How silly: to think that his friendship, his mentorship, depended on my publishing credits.  All those years I could’ve had with him; all those empty hours in which I could’ve called, and I didn’t.  All those things I could’ve said to him; all those things he could’ve said to me.  One of the great friendships of my life: how easily I discarded it.  Because of shame. Because of fear.  Because I wasn’t writing.  Because I wasn’t being published.  How incredibly stupid.

Professor Goran, I get it now.  Our friendship wasn’t really about writing at all, was it?  The writing was the means through which we recognized each other.

Angienetro, you grew up in a blue collar, run-down neighborhood?  Me too.

Angienetro, you love recklessly, completely, with everything you’ve got and then some?  Me too.

I imagine my mentor in his office, with its huge Henry James portrait, its stuffed bookshelves.  I imagine his voice, its soft tenor.  I imagine him saying something he most likely never would’ve said if he were still here:   

Angienetro, when I talked about stupidity I was talking about this: this pressure you’ve put on yourself.  Stop it.  Stop it right now.  Do you see what it’s done?  Do you?  Do you finally see?

Yes, Professor Goran.  I do.

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