To some extent, all of us are intelligent enough to improve our writing technique on our own. By reading books, exchanging critiques, and simply putting the time in to actually write, we can slowly become better without the help of teachers or other people who have been at this much longer than we have. But at some point, most of us hit our own limit. We've learned what we are able to learn on our own. We don't know what we don't know anymore. We need a mentor.
I've had the good fortune of coming across some great mentors in my life. I had a drawing teacher in college, Dave Hollowell, who spent thirty weeks saying the same thing over and over again. "It's all about intention." It took me about twenty-six weeks to finally hear him. And, for anyone who has been following this blog for awhile, you will hopefully remember that Mary Yukari Waters has been a strong mentor for me. (I actually get a chance to interview her in the next couple of weeks, so I'm totally thrilled about that.)
For me, it's not just a matter of stumbling upon a good teacher. I personally have to be at the right stage of my development to be able to learn from a particular mentor. In Mary's class, there were about fifteen students, and though all of them thought the class was excellent, I was probably the only one whose writing was completely transformed as a result of her teaching. I happened to be at a place where the things I needed to learn (without knowing it) coincided directly with the things that Mary decided to teach.
Lately, I've been trying to take a more active role in finding my mentors. In Mary's first collection of short stories, she thanks a man named Tom Filer for being a big help to her. I'm now trying to contact him in the hopes that he'll invite me to his Goat Alley Workshop, which, from what I hear, is simply a small group of dedicated writers who sit together in his living room and critique each other.
Last year, I also had the very fortunate chance to have dinner with Janet Fitch and Samantha Dunn. I found both of these writers to be truly intelligent, and they both recounted the same funny anecdote. They were friends, and both of them were taking a writing class from a woman named Kate Braverman. One evening, after the group received their critiques, Janet Fitch (author of White Oleander and Paint It Black) ended up crying in her car and was deciding if she should quit being a writer. She happened to look up from where she was parked on the street and she noticed Samantha and another student, ALSO crying in their cars. They all had a good laugh about it and decided to continue on with their careers.
When I heard this story, I decided I must at some point take a class with this Kate Braverman. She has unfortunately moved north to the Bay Area, but hopefully I'll have a chance to learn from her sometime soon.
Have mentors helped you in your writing? What qualities do good mentors have?