Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Do You Need A Writing Mentor?

Back in college I had several professors who took me under their wing, so to speak. One of those professors loved Flannery O'Connor with all of her heart. She could quote passages, and I spent a lot of time in her cubicle talking about literature and staring at a jar of Adam's 100% Natural Peanut Butter she had on her shelf next to O'Connor's complete collection. I liked looking at that jar of peanut butter - the golden oil floating atop the creamy butter. I had another professor who loved Washington and wrote about volcanoes and birds and rain. He was the best poet I have ever met, and he always will be. Why? Because he taught me how to listen to my inner rhythm. When he read poetry, dressed in his grunge outfits and large combat-looking boots, he would sweep me away to somewhere new and exciting every time.

He made me consider words as single entities, each one magical.

I had other professors who would put their arm around me and tell me to keep writing. Sometimes I would hand over a poem or a short story and watch them read it during their lunch break, crumbs still collected at the corners of their mouths. Some of the most rewarding moments of my life were when those professors looked up and said, "Wow," and then proceeded to give me suggestions, guidance, more praise.

Do we need mentors?

Do we need them through our entire writing career?

I'm going to say no. When I was learning to listen to myself in college, I would sit under an oak tree and look out across the lake, wondering what to write next. I wanted to impress my professors. They were who I wrote for because they took a genuine, keen interest in my work, and I often think I still need that sort of direction, but it's more of a want than a need.

Many of us graduate to different levels of writing, and I believe there is a level where we learn to trust ourselves, know ourselves, enough to write without wires to hold us up. Validation is for those who haven't cut the wires yet. I'm still hanging on to a few. Are you? What point have you reached in your writing career?


  1. I'm sure I've still got some wires/training wheels floating around. Oh well. Someday. Fun post.

  2. I still need wires! I have my critique group, which is actually a college class about novel writing where everyone takes turns sharing their work. The professor of this class is amazing and wonderfully supportive, and I'd definitely consider her a mentor. Even when I don't need her for my writing any more, I'll probably still keep in touch with her.

  3. I agree that we don't need mentors for our entire writing careers, but I don't think there will ever be a time when we don't need them at all.

    I had an amazing lit professor in college. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be writing today because he pushed me to be the best writer I could be. All the time. Do I need him now? No, not really. But have I outgrown the need for any kind of mentor? Absolutely not.

    Last year, I reached the limit of what I could learn on my own. Then I signed with an amazing agent, and she opened all kinds of doors for me regarding craft. I knew they were out there, but I couldn't figure out how to open them on my own. With her help, I'm now exploring what's inside all those doors. I don't need her to walk me through everything, and I don't really need her validation, but that little bit if guidance was amazingly helpful.

    I'm guessing that I'll eventually run into another set of doors like this, and I'll need some help getting them open. As long as I'm searching out craft, I'm going to come across these doors, and then I'll need to find some help. Again. :)

  4. Sorry, hit send too soon. :)

    Anyway, I was going to finish up by saying that I'm sure I'll be on my own here and there in the coming years, but I can't ever see a time where I will never need a mentor again.

  5. Stephanie: Hehe, yes, I think most of us do!

    L.T. Host: That's great that you will keep in touch! I've gotten out of touch with my professors, sadly. Sounds like you have a good support system.

    Tabitha: I love what you say about doors! That's so true that we may need different kinds of mentors. I wasn't thinking of it in that way. More, the way of validation and help with basic writing. As for publishing and such, I'm sure that if I ever get to that point, I will definitely need more mentor-type help, and that an agent might fulfill that role.

    On the other hand, I would like to reach a point in my writing where I don't need validation, and I definitely do not need guidance from others on how to write - more like I will find that on my own by studying great writers and excelling on my own more than I'm able to do now without constant pushing and nudging.

    We all must rely on others, I agree, and writing should never be completely solitary.

  6. I had two fabulous mentors in my previous career, mentors in the old fashioned way. I saw one or the other of them almost every day. They went over my preparation, my work with fine toothed combs. If they weren't watching me teach, they had me tape my lessons and watched with me later. Or I watched them teach and talked about it later. We had hundreds of one-to-one sessions. They opened up their hearts and shared their experiences, and I absorbed and learned.

    Intense couldn't begin to describe the experience. As a young person, that was probably the best learning experience I could have had.

    But at some point, everyone has to become independent,and process all that training and experience on their own.

    Even though I am doing something different now: writing instead of teaching piano, I find that I am still reaping the benefits of my early mentors and the years of processing my apprentice years.

    And the short answer is no, I don't need a mentor now. What I do need, are peers, who are just as serious about their work, who can offer feedback but not instruction, who will cheer and support instead of teach and instruct.

    Long winded answer to your question.

  7. I don't think we'll ever reach a point where we stop learning how to make our writing better. Fro me at least that is part of what makes it so much fun. But I agree than eventually we need to reach a point where we don't depend on other people's opinions to be satisfied with our writing.

  8. Don't we always have those 'wires' of validation? I mean, isn't an agent wanting to represent our work validation? An editor wanting to edit? A publisher wanting to publish? A reader want to read?

    I think there is a need, deeply human, almost impossible to ignore, for validation . . . of some sort. As much as we trust ourselves, learn to listen to our instinct, there is - at least in my opinion - always a part of us that needs to hear the words "good job". It doesn't matter if we have complete faith in our work and ability. Those two simple words - good job - validate what we already knew.

    So don't clip those wires too quickly. : )

    I think when we can actually write just for us and nobody else (imagined audience, agents, publishers, or whatnot) then we have graduated to the level you speak about in this post. As long as we are catering to the imagined likes/dislikes of others, then I don't think - no matter the justifications - we are truly content in our writing. At least I'm not content. The most freeing, and perhaps the best, writing I ever did was when I wrote solely for me. Perhaps it is at that point, that the need for validation diminishes to an almost non-existent level. Hmmmm . . .


  9. LG - love how your voice flows...don't know if we still need mentors...(sometimes i long for one...sometimes i think it will mess up what i'm trying to do/say), but we for sure still need readers and people saying "wow!"

  10. I used to need validation mentors - now I need guiding mentors. I feel like I have some ability, now I just need help with making it the best it can be. Critique groups are great for that. Love the details in this post.

  11. I think we always need mentors...but not for validation.

    We need mentors because those connections to writers who have walked the path before us are invaluable. Many successful authors are still close to their mentors. Often the relationship becomes one of friendship.

    I don't write for a mentor's approval, but for my audience of children.

    I use published authors as my "mentors" all the time (unbeknownst to them!) I study them, analyze their voice, etc. I get no approval from them, of course, but I consider them mentors.

    Very interesting post.


  12. Ah, I remember being a high school and college student completely in awe of my teachers and professors and wanting so bad to learn from their wisdom and get validation from them that I could write.

    Most of them were extremely helpful, not just with their teaching, but with their encouragement. One or two were a little dangerous. When a young person learning to write is in such a vulnerable state, one snide comment or non-constructive criticism from a trusted teacher can destroy confidence for years.

    I like the idea of a progression in mentoring needs. At first, we need teachers who encourage (which must come first) and instruct (which we need to build skill).

    In my experience, what I need at this point is motivation and critique from my peers and more experienced writers. When I'm ready to get into submission and publishing, I'll be happy for any mentoring on the business end of writing that I can get. I can't imagine ever being at a point in my writing where I won't need anything from anybody, but I think it moves more from a teacher/student structure to peer review.

  13. My creative writing teacher had me read some flannery o'connor... I enjoyed her, but, yeah, I completely agree -- early on, it might be important, but once you've got your feet under you, it's best to figure your own path, IMO

  14. I'm starting from point "A" so help and mentors are something of an important thing for me.

  15. The nature of writing or any artform is that we must be willing to blow everyone else off and write the way we think is best or we'll never be more than just a copycat. But there's always something we can learn from others. I look back at some of the stuff I did when I was younger and I think, "I wish someone had told me that before I tried it." At the time, I thought I knew what I was doing, but experience taught me otherwise. A good mentor could have saved me the trouble.

    As for writing mentors, I suspect that we can reach a point where there aren't people who can help us improve our writing much, just as skilled musicians reach a point where they don't really need much help learning to play better, but we could still use help in other things. One of the things I've noticed, for example, is that success drives writers to become snobs. It's a natural thing. If you listen to enough people praise your work, you will eventually start believing it. But some authors are able to keep that tendency in check. If I ever become a successful author, I hope there is a mentor there to help keep me from becoming just another snobish author.

  16. I answered your question with a blog post of my own :)


    At some point in my writing career, I'll be happy to have a mentor. For now, I need to push myself to do the things I keep thinking I need a mentor for: accountability and validation :)

    Need? No. Want? You betcha--when I'm ready :)

  17. Yat-Yee: I really like your comment. I think that's what I need a lot of the time - more cheering and support than teaching and instructing. Not that I'm not always learning, but I don't feel like I need that kind of focused teaching, if that makes sense.

    Taryn: I agree with you on that - about becoming satisfied with our writing without other people being the cause of it. I'm working on that still.

    Scott: I think validation and mentorship are two different things, although they can go hand in hand. I will always appreciate praise for my work, but I'd like to get beyond the phase where I need an actual instructor to praise me in order to feel good.

    Angel-Star: I agree all the way on that. It's nice to see our work please someone.

    Mary: Critique groups can be good for that, yes!

    Shelley: Yes, I think mentors shouldn't be used only for or mainly for validation. I like how you get mentors from reading - that's what I've preferred to do for awhile now.

    Genie: Yes, I probably should have made it more clear that I mean "teaching mentors" more than anything else. I think any serious writer reaches a point where they don't necessarily need instruction on their writing anymore.

    Bane: Yes, I like that phrase of "finding your own path." It's difficult to get our own voice and style if we're catering to others we look up to.

    J.J.: Ah, I hope you have some great mentors!

    Timothy: Hah, I hear you about the writing snobs. I think it's a good thing to be networked with other writers who can keep us always striving to be better.

  18. Kari: Wow! A whole blog post. I will definitely go check that out. Thank you. :)

  19. I think you always need wires, maybe not as many as when you begin, but sometimes wires are necessary, even if it's just to keep you grounded.

    Great post.

  20. Since my degrees are in English, rather than creative writing, I've never had a writing mentor. I've taken a few summer classes and learned some good things, and one of those teachers did make a good suggestion to solve the problem with one of my YA novels, but it wasn't more than a one-time thing.
    I tried a writing group once, but everyone in the group was still struggling with very basic stuff, and they weren't much help to me.
    Mostly now, since I write YA, I get a rough draft done and then have my students beta read it. They can't make suggestions like an instructor can, but they don't pull any punches either. If they don't like something, they tell me -- even if they can only barely explain why they don't like it. But at least I know which parts they like.
    I wish I did have a mentor; I'd like one. But I've never had the chance.

  21. I agree. That need is so strong and important at the very start..but it fades with time. The validation and help is nice and appreciated, but not as life sustaining.

    Still, doubt hides in shady corners of my mind and I'm sometimes surprised to read something I have written and have no clue if it is good or complete crap.

    honestly, that's the truth. So, in those moments, I turn to friends. I see them as equals more than mentors but I sure do appreciate the objective review they offer.

  22. I have the privilege of having my wonderful mother as my artistic mentor. I couldn't be luckier! She taught me all she knew, even convinced me to life-drawing classes at fourteen (complete with nude models) - same as she did. traumatizing for a kid. fascinating for an artist.
    As someone aspiring to become a director, I also find it important to have more than one mentors so I can see as much as I can from different points of views - which is extremely important if i want to be successful. Since it's a multi-tasking job, I feel I have to explore everything. Just like writing if you want to see through different types of creative processes to be able to place yourself correctly and you don't end up in the wrong category.

    I like to say Tim Burton is my mentor.
    He just doesn't know it yet. >w>


  23. Patti: I like that about keeping grounded. Timothy mentioned that up above, too. Always good to have a few. :)

    Paperback: I've never had an "official" mentor, but I do consider others as mentors, in a way. Another commenter above said her mentor is reading from great authors. That can work too.

    Tess: I think friends can serve as mentors, in a way, even if they do seem more like equals. I have a feeling that no matter how far I get with writing, I'll always write stuff I don't know is good or not. Hopefully that just won't happen as often.

    Brigitte: Hehe about Tim Burton! And I think that's wonderful that your mom is your mentor. In a way, parents should always be mentors for their children, so I'm glad to see that your mom has done that for you in the creative field.

  24. Ah, yes, well, if we count authors whose examples we may follow, that's different.
    I suppose I misunderstood your definition of the term "mentor."

  25. Paperback: That's the problem - I didn't really define it. I always write posts without clearly defining things. Mostly, I meant someone who can teach and guide us, but also validate us with their praise because of the position they hold. But then, because of some comments above, I've started seeing that a "mentor" can mean a lot of different things. Sorry to be confusing!

  26. I've never had a mentor. The closest I've come was a couple of friends with whom I used to banter ideas around with.

    Every step I've taken has been a shaky, self-taught one. It's lonely, scary and I very often lose my way.

    But I've made one milestone - the acceptance of a short story. I'll make having a novel published eventually.

  27. Misa: That is wonderful about your short story! Congratulations. This writing journey is long. Enjoy every step!

  28. I like the validation, and obviously with what I've learned over the last few weeks I need instruction. I'm still on the learning side of things.

  29. I had one fiction writing teacher, for three months. She was the first to publish my work, and for that I'm forever grateful. But the real work began once I graduated and started to write for myself, and not for arbitrary class deadlines. Then I turned to Hemingway and Faulkner and Woolf as mentors.

    Validation is still sweet, though. That's what blogging is good for. :)

  30. I'm not sure if I've cut the wires or not. In some places, I feel like I can stand on my own. In others, I feel like I'm just too bloody unsure. I know that I'll always seek better learning for my craft but I suspect that's quite different than what you're talking about here. I'm trying out my wings but I'm not sure how far I'll make it from the nest.

  31. Lois: We are all on different paths, and we can all keep learning no matter where we're at. I think the important thing is confidence - I think that's what I was trying to say here in this post, but I didn't realize it until now.

    Simon: Ah, yes, turning to the great writers as mentors is a great way to learn. Yeah, blogging and networking has its good sides. ;)

    L.T.: You do seem pretty sure of yourself, though, from the times I have talked to you about writing. Even if you're unsure about some things, your overall confidence will carry you far.

  32. I believe we have different types of needs as we evolve in our writing. I know that I will keep writing, regardless of praise or criticism. I don't write for anyone but myself these days. Yes, I want those who read it to adore it but I also look for honest crits from critique partners, etc. I hope to have my work published someday. Until then I need critique partners and wow it would be awesome to have a published author as a mentor at this point. I'll keep on writing though.

  33. A mentor is great if one can retain one's independence of thought, while remaining open to constructive criticism. The more experienced a writer is, the less need there is for a mentor. I'm still clinging to the wires though.

  34. I believe in mentors - but ONLY when the mentor is someone MUCH higher than myself. Not someone who is going to tell me what TO write, but someone who pushes me to FEEL everything I write.

    When I developed a faith only in my own opinion, I ceased to see my mistakes.

  35. Lynette: Well said! Yes, I think it's important to have a balance between our own confidence and trusting others to help us.


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