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