Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mentored Writing

We live in a strange new world where the concept of mentor belongs only in Vogler's book or in the body and spirit of Obi Wan. It's part mystery, part mystical, and we don't tend to ask many questions regarding its place in our lives. Why would we? It's only in books, yes?

But the idea of apprenticeship has been around a long, long time -- and even today there are fields of work where one becomes an understudy or an apprentice or an intern. My father, who is a union electrician, had to be an apprentice for five years in order to earn the title journeyman.

Growth is dependent upon many variables: attitude, awareness, motivation, and, most importantly, exposure to excellence. After all, the great Vince Lombardi once said that practice doesn't make perfect -- only "perfect practice makes perfect." Unless we study, mimic, practice, fail, try again, all on repeat, we never learn to walk. Why would writing be any different?

Acquiring a Mentor: I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but I whole-heartedly believe that mentorship is a vital part of becoming a better writer. It's important to find someone who is more skilled or experienced since the entire point is growth. (Caveat: Choosing someone who is leaps and bounds ahead of you will only frustrate you. Just as a beginning chess player wouldn't sit down to a match with Bobby Fischer, I wouldn't sit down with Lois McMaster Bujold. I'd probably just quiver uncontrollably as synapses starting shorting.) The paths to finding a mentor are many and varied, and I don't think there is only one way. Below are but a few options.
  • Select authors you admire and study their work.
  • Get recommendations from other writers, editors, and agents regarding books on writing.
  • Involve yourself with an on-line writing community and immerse yourself in the dialogue.
  • Join or start a f2f writing group: "as iron sharpens iron"
  • Peruse the blog/website of an author who's just been published; they're often willing to share what they've experienced on their own journey.
Becoming a Mentor: (It's a two-way street, baby.) This is probably the less accepted half of the whole mentorship cookie, but I endorse it passionately. It's a widely held belief in the education world that you don't truly learn something until you've had to explain it to someone else. Even more than that, however, I believe that within the act of mentoring lies a world of opportunity for everyone involved. Not only are you putting karma chips in your karma piggy bank, but you are learning and growing and developing through the process as well. I know it sounds paradoxical, but it's true. As you mentor, your own ideas, thoughts, and beliefs begin to solidify in a way that defies comprehension. You discover examples that stand as evidence to your knowledge and experience and journey. You also discover your weaknesses and areas of murky understanding. It's powerful.

Mentoring starts most often with friendship. And you don't announce that you're the mentor or that you're looking for someone to mentor. That's arrogant and cheesy. Often someone will seek you out. That's what happened in the teaching field for me.
  • On-line social networking: within the same network where you found your mentor, it's like that you can find someone looking for a mentor.
  • On-line and Face-to-Face writing groups: there are undoubtedly varying degrees of experience and skill within your own writing group.
  • Blogs: it's easy to find aspiring writers and their blogs. Um. Hello. Did anyone find me yet?
I'm sure there are many more ways that mentors or mentees can be found. Any ideas?

To give credit where credit is due, I came across this concept of having and becoming a mentor in my devotions years ago. For those of you familiar with the New Testament, the idea was to find a Paul and a Timothy. The idea stuck with me because it's a powerful one, one that can and should be applied to many areas of our lives. For example, I have certainly chosen a mentor and have chosen to mentor within the education world. It's only made me a better teacher.

What is your experience? Do you have a mentor? Do you mentor others?


Margot Kinberg said...

Great post, Alex!
As an educator, I wholly believe in the mentoring process and you're right - it can make for much better writing.
As for my own writing, I do have some mentoring, and I get a lot of support and advice from others in the writing community through our blog posts (like yours today) : ) and through tweets, etc.. Thanks for making me focus on that resource.

stu said...

Not so much in the writing, though there's a part of me that can't stop leaping in with advice, and I am involved in a couple of online writing groups.

Outside of writing, I find that it's the sort of relationship that crops up an awful lot in fencing, simply because the one to one nature of the practise almost demands it.

Charles Gramlich said...

I found a mentor in undergrad school but had him for only a few short weeks before he died. Since then I've relied on books to handle the mentoring duites, but I've tried to mentor other young writers.

Iapetus999 said...

May the Force be with you.
My wife thinks it's funny that I go to author's and editor's blogs and argue with them. Because I haven't published anything. By "funny" she means "sad."
But the point isn't to be a douchenozzle. I find that the more I try to explain a writing meme or trope (she almost hit me the other day when I used the word "trope") to some other writer, the more I learn about it myself.

Mentoring, menteeing--it's not about sitting there in class like you did in HS or college. It's about actively seeking knowledge and banging on anyone's door who will listen to your prattle (and hopefully correct you when you're wrong). Maybe people sometimes feel like knowledge will fall from the sky but you have to go out and find it...and challenge it when you find it to be off.

Alex Moore said...

@Margot Kinberg: It's amazing the kind of support we do get through our social networking sites, you know. (& so often, from complete strangers -- who quickly become acquaintances and sometimes even dear friends.) I'm glad you have mentoring in your life. Helps, doesn't it :)

@stu: i think sometimes we just don't call it mentoring when, in reality, there might be shades of it in place :) on the other hand, i guess i do know and exchange comments w/ a lot of people who appear to be in the same boat that i am. we commiserate, yes, but we do provide advice and perspective because of our distinct experiences. hmmm...i wonder if there's another "label" all together that i should be hunting for?? :)

@Charles Gramlich: oh. my. I am so sorry -- I can't even imagine. I think at that point, you feel (well, so many things) but also that you can't replace him. Books, indeed, seem the safer way to go. I definitely use that resource as well, but it seems that there are so many to choose from. If you don't mind me asking, what books were the most helpful to you?

@Iapetus999: Yes! Life, itself, is about actively seeking knowledge, being proactive in your journey, banging on heaven's door, even :) so many people have chosen to be passive, accepting whatever is spoon-fed them, and then blaming others when their lives don't turn out the way they do on tv. The writing life is no different! It sounds like you're well on your way -- Happy seeking to you, dear sir ;)

inlandempiregirl said...

It ends up I have connected with a student I had thirty years ago that is now interested in writing. We have been writing back and forth and she is even thinking about a blog!

Shelli said...

Verla kay has an area for mentors

Dave said...

Very important topic. I hope you post on it over on Adventures in Writing. Perhaps it is the energizing aspect that I am missing.

The closest that I have come to a mentor situation was with a writer that led a workshop. I was lucky enough to have her read some of my stuff well after the workshop and when I met her again at PNWA she was very encouraging.

The thing is that I hate to use up people's time. It's hard to know the modern rules of mentoring if it is not set up in a formal way.

This concept (mentoring) is probably the most effective way of changing the lives of young people who are on a path of crime. That's my humble opinion.

Thanks for the Paul/Timothy reference too. Makes me consider pulling out the good book and taking a look, although I will probably put that off until I shake off this sick bug.

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