Teaching Tuesday: Mentor (and Be Mentored) Wisely

Teaching Tuesday: Mentor (and Be Mentored) Wisely

I take my job as a mentor pretty seriously. This blog–my whole social media presence, really–is an expression of my desire to mentor as many writers as possible.

Some of you are here because you’re writing students, and some of you are here as writing teachers.

These “Teaching Tuesdays” features are geared towards the writing teachers, although I’m sure the students will be interested, too.

Mentoring via New Media

I started a blog a few years ago called #amlinking. It’s for a class I occasionally teach on Linked Stories. I’m teaching it right now. The class and I will share our weekly discussions and activities with you. There are only 2 people following this blog at the moment. Please hit the “follow” button on that blog, and you won’t miss a thing.

I started a blog a few years ago called #amnoveling. It’s for a class I frequently teach on Novel Writing. I’m teaching it right now. The class and I will share our weekly discussions and activities with you. There are 75 people actively following the course right now. Feel free to join us by hitting the “follow” button on that blog, and you won’t miss a thing.

I started a blog in January 2013 called Literary Citizenship. It’s for a class I just started teaching on that subject. I’ll teach it again in Spring 2014. I haven’t quite figured out the best way to use that blog, but there are 101 people who will know when I do figure it out. Please hit the “follow” button on that blog if you want to be one of those people.

As you have no doubt gathered, I take on too much. My desire to be helpful–no, my enjoyment of being helpful–is both a blessing and a curse to me. But to be honest, it’s easier for me to have all these blogs and help you via new media than it would be to help you in person. My blogging doesn’t interfere with my fiction writing. No, blogging creates more time for me to write. These blogs are basically my teaching materials, lecture notes, long emails sent to friends and former students, and FB comments–all that writing made transparent to anyone. In fact, many of my blog posts start as writing intended for a different purpose.

Like today’s topic: Mentor Wisely

Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review, wrote this blog post, “On Finding a Writing Mentorship.”  I wrote a long comment in response, but I want to expand on my thoughts here–about being mentored, and mentoring itself.

Being Mentored

The topic isn’t talked about nearly enough. In undergraduate and graduate programs, young writers must be on the lookout for mentors and stay in touch with them. Cultivating mentors is a mostly unspoken process. I know I wasn’t very deliberate about it until mid-career, when I was long out of school.

I’ve had many mentors, but in the last few years, the most important has been Porter Shreve, and I met him by writing him a letter, thanking him for reviewing my book.

Me and Porter in 2005 at a talk sponsored by the Indiana Writers Center.
Me and Porter in 2005 at a talk sponsored by the Indiana Writers Center.

When I use words like “deliberate” and “cultivate,” please don’t get the idea that I’m recommending that you should be disingenuous in this process. Ultimately, mentoring happens naturally. You either get along with someone or you don’t. I wrote a lot of thank you letters when my first book was being published; Porter’s was the only one that turned into something else. We “clicked,” and finding a mentor isn’t that different from finding the right agent, the right spouse/partner. You have to “click” with someone.

It’s hard to find mentors when you’re out of school, even harder when you’re not employed by a university. That’s where conferences and colonies come in, I think, or local writing communities. Here’s a post I wrote about how to find writers to write Letters of Recommendation when you’re out of school, and so it touches on many of these issues.

In his post, Michael mentions a friend who felt that her mentor “cut her off.” That’s a very unfortunate thing. And it hurts, I know.

As someone who mentors many, many former students, I can only say that it’s really difficult to maintain that many relationships and find time to help them all. I’m mid-career and feel overwhelmed sometimes. At the end of one’s career, I’m sure you become much more choosy about in whom you invest your limited time and energy.

Let me say this, too: Hell hath no fury like a mentor scorned. No, that’s not quite right. If you scorn your mentor somehow, you will most likely get silence, not fury. I think there is a deep-seated need inside us all, a need to repudiate our parental figures. Consider what Ernest Hemingway did to his mentor, Sherwood Anderson. Or maybe it’s not even conscious scorn. Maybe we’re like teenagers who take our parents for granted until we’re old enough to appreciate what they’ve done for us. All I can say is that when someone who is further down the pike reaches out to help you, agrees to champion you in any way, honor that gesture. Be grateful.

But do not expect it to happen. Strive to be worthy of being mentored, but do not expect it.

Being a Mentor

I wish AWP would offer up some kind of statement about this topic, specifically “What are the long-term responsibilities associated with being a member of the faculty of an MFA program?”

I hear this gripe a lot:

I paid a lot of money/invested a lot of time in my graduate degree, and now I feel cut off and stranded professionally. So why did I do it?

The answer to this question is incredibly complicated, and I don’t even know if the problem can be or ever will be solved.

But a step in the right direction would be for the mentors themselves to mentor wisely.

Part of the problem, I think, is that creative writing programs nationwide are booming. We’re admitting more students than we can mentor one-on-one in the classic, “closed” system.

We can't always provide the closed model. The classic model. The closed model isn't even practicable.
We can’t always provide the closed model. The classic model. The closed model isn’t even practicable.

Therefore, we need to teach students to think about mentoring less like the image on the left and more like the image on the right. We need to point them towards other resources. This blog was created in part because I knew it was needed.

Also: set limits. Create rules for yourself about how you will help. You can’t mentor everyone.

Remember: apprentice writers need feedback on their writing from their mentors, yes. This is what takes so much time, especially for prose writers. (I’m sorry, but it’s true.) But feedback is not the only thing your students need from you. They also need you to be a productive writer yourself. Remember that.

Until next Tuesday then, when I think I’m going to talk about something very simple: learning all their names. 

CW Programs Teaching

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