Monday, April 20, 2009

Writing Mentors

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?


  1. I believe it's best to learn from an honest and humble mentor. Both qualities are essential, unless you don't mind false hope or convoluted lessons.

  2. Hmmm...

    -I have had mentors who taught me what NOT to do. One college prof in particular, who said to never bother with genre writing, as it wasn't "true" enough. In particular, he thought fantasy was worthless because you could solve the problem with a magic wand--when in reality, the best fantasy makes the magic wand part of the problem.

    -I have had a variety of beta readers/crit partners who have helped in various degrees. Sometimes it's just the beta reader giving me a positive word that makes me want to finish the story; sometimes it's beta reader giving me very negative feedback that makes me realize what needs to be changed.

  3. I had a fantastic professor in college (Creative Writing Class) who helped me so much. His encouragement was priceless. My other mentors have been friends/beta readers. I'm applying for a writing seminar this summer. I hope I make the cut. The teacher only takes 15 students.

  4. I agree with what you say about having the right person teaching the right stuff at the right time. I had one mentor who was very useful and I owe her so much, but I think she was great only at that stage of my writing career. I would love to find someone else now. I guess, I'll just keep my eyes open in case he/she comes my way.

  5. My mentor? My son Christopher. The one with problems--he's my hero, too! Also, the negative feedback that always makes the writing better after the hysterical sobs go away! :)

  6. There have been a lot of writers who have had a positive influence on my work, but I've never had a mentor. I've had some brutal critique from a couple of authors ("You have a problem with adjectives. Try not to use any for the next year.") and I have tried to read a lot of well-written books, but essentially I've muddled along on my own. I'm not really sure who I'd want as a mentor at this point, nor what I'd want from them. Which is not to say that I couldn't benefit from someone's help, just that I don't know what I want from one.

  7. I had a creative writing teacher last year that was completely crazy...or was she? Her class gave me the idea for my book. My best mentors have always been those that read my work and critique it, especially my best friend cheerleaders!

  8. I've had some amazing mentors, especially in college. They steered me back into creative writing, for which I am truly grateful. Otherwise I'd probably be editing textbooks or something.

    Mentors can be invaluable. I hope you get to take a class with Kate sometime.

  9. I don't really have a mentor. I had college professors that were academic writing mentors, but I sort of just stumbled into creative writing.

    All of you guys write such helpful posts...I suppose you are all my mentors. It helps a lot to read blogs!!

  10. Really great thoughts going on over here. I was blessed to be paired up with Patti Gauch (VP/Penguin) at a conference. She had my ms in advance and when I met with her she said, "why would anyone care?". It stung - but her candor and sincere desire to help me write the best ms I could was a turning point in my writing. I still ask myself that question with every page I write.

  11. Justus, I never thought about that, but humility is a great quality to have in a mentor.

    Beth, there are a lot of people out there that tell you what you can't do. I'm glad you can just ignore them! :)

    Good luck with getting into the seminar, Lotusgirl!

    Krisz, Yes, sometimes we outgrow a particular mentor and then we know it's time for a new one.

    Robyn, ha! That's funny what you said about the negative feedback. It's lovely that your son is your mentor.

    Scott, I'd say you were doing quite well on your own. Some people are good at teaching themselves. I'm okay at it, but the right teacher always helps me.

    Mariah, That's great that your mentor also inspired you with a book idea!

    Lady Glamis, have you worked with Kate Braverman before?

    Thanks, Litgirl! I agree the blogs are pretty inspiring...if not addictive. :P

    Tess, isn't it amazing how sometimes a mentor can change your view just by saying a single sentence?

  12. My mother was my first mentor. Her background was in linguistics and business writing, so her grammatical skills were excellent. When she corrected a grammatical mistake, she would give me the reason for it (and often a Latin lesson).

    I've outgrown her as a mentor because I now need help with the more subtle aspects of writing specific to fiction, but when I read agents who say that many of the submissions they receive don't have correct grammar, I am still grateful I had a personal live-in tutor to help me learn the fundamentals of English.

    I would love to have a mentor who specialized in fiction. Crit partners fill this role for me.

  13. My students, a motley crew of high school freshmen (and I mean that 100% affectionately ... I love the little monsters :-)), serve as my writing mentors. The most important lesson they've taught me is not to take myself too seriously. They actually enjoy the sample pieces I put together for them, although they glorify in finding room for improvement and, even more so, the occasional grammatical mistake.

  14. It is undeniable fact that there are lots of writers who have had a great positive on my work, but I've never really had a mentor. I am thinking to have one or more. Any recommendation are always welcome. BIG THANK and look forward to hearing from you,

  15. Man, I need to move back to LA. You are meeting so many great people!

    My writing advisor in college was really great. She recently wrote a rec letter for me, for grad school, and was encouraging about that. But I feel too shy to ask her, "Hey, be my mentor again?"

    Otherwise, I'm not sure. I think the only other mentors I've had were writers on writing: Anne Lamont, Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Brenda Ueland.

  16. Davin, how come I didn't know you had a blog? I've been catching up and I'm really enjoying your posts. Sometimes I wish a mentor would just appeared on my doorstep (well, not literally). I do feel I'm stuck at where I am now, but attending conferences and workshops is out of question--three small kiddos etc etc. One midnight I felt almost brave enough to email a writer I admire and ask him to be my mentor, but then I went to bed. This is not how things are done, eh?


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