Who Needs A Mentor?

I’ve been very blessed with great mentors. Rob Roberge and Gayle Brandeis in particular helped shape my work. Cheryl Strayed totally saved me in workshop – saved Growing Chocolate – with her suggestion to flip the last two chapters. I did have to go back and clean some things up, but that change kept the tone consistent all the way to the end and preserved my original intent. That’s the great thing about a talented mentor – they will not rewrite your work or suggest changes according to their vision or how they would write, but try to help you find your own way in your own voice. Also, for me, kind encouragement goes a long way and all three of these people are extraordinarily kind. That doesn’t mean they aren’t rigorous because they are. I never felt like I could slide or get away with anything. Plus they’re so fiercely smart, it would have been foolish to try. But as far as mentoring styles, I cannot hear ridicule. I shut down. Mean mentors don’t work for me. Criticism as bloodsport? No thanks. The world is cruel enough. We don’t need to help things along in that department.

Rob got me started on the path to better writing. He’s one of the best teachers out there. He asked a lot of questions and clarified the difference between mystery and murky and so many other issues. Mystery is fine, withholding certain bits of information is fine, but you don’t want murky. Readers want to know what’s going on in any given scene, so tell them. Lucky for all of us, he’s working on a craft book.

Gayle has many gifts including relating writing to the body. Plus she gets more done than practically anyone I know; we, her mentees, were suspicious that she does not need sleep, but she says she does so we will take her at her word. She must bend time somehow. 🙂 Anyway, as writers we tend to live in our heads and Gayle always reminds me that there’s much more to it.

In addition to the mentorship on any particular book, there is the mentorship of career, which is now more or less where I am with these three wonderful people. At a certain point, you make the shift from writing to your writing career. These three writers and others I had the privilege to work with at Antioch and elsewhere, have all taught me the value of continuing to move forward, of hard work, of taking chances. They are all productive and pretty darned cheerful in the process. Cheryl has been unfailingly gracious as she steps into the dream so many writers wish for. Rob and Gayle are generous with their time even with the demands of their own writing, teaching, readings, and so on.

Did I mention they all write beautifully? They do.

Who are your mentors? If you don’t have one, find one at a conference, a master’s program, workshops, even conventions such as Book Expo or AWP. It will save your sanity, help your writing, and, if you’re fortunate, enrich your life.

P.S. If you need a pep talk, here you go.

Do You Read As A Writer Or A Reader?

Two disparate events this week – we put up Lee Stoopsannotation of Volt, Alan Heathcock‘s short story collection, on Annotation Nation. Then, Wild, the memoir by my friend and mentor Cheryl Strayed was chose by Oprah to relaunch her book club into Oprah 2.0. Wow. I feel remarkably luck to have had Cheryl as a mentor at Antioch. She had me flip the last two chapters of Growing Chocolate and *boom* the ending worked.

Anyway, how are these two events connected? Lee examines Volt as a writer; Oprah has a section on her site with her favorite lines from Wild. Lee is a writer looking at the craft of another writer, things such as pace, tempo, language, and structure. It is the same process of learning in any craft – closely examining what another did and discerning how they did it.

Lee writes:

After character and circumstance, the element a short story requires to sustain its life and meaning is pace. Heathcock’s stories model methodic, measured tempo – the way a musician might craft the rise and falls of moving instrumentation. The effect is similar in that the reader can settle into the prose and let the story unfold at the speed at which it’s been set. Heathcock engineers the changes in pace with ultimate regard to the characters and their circumstances, without forgetting the reader and the needs he or she will have.

Oprah is doing something similar. She picks out her favorite passages and explains why, but as a reader she’s looking primarily at the emotional effect the section had on her or what she learned from it. This is not less than an annotation, just different, a reading anno, if you will. She does it well and it clearly helps other readers in their process and that’s a great thing.

Here’s an example from Oprah’s Favorite Lines:

Part One: The Ten Thousand Things

I set my toothbrush down, then leaned into the mirror and stared into my own eyes. I could feel myself disintegrating inside myself like a past-bloom flower in the wind. Every time I moved a muscle, another petal of me blew away. Please, I thought. Please.

Oprah’s note:
First of all, I love the notion of a person as a flower with the petals disintegrating. I don’t ever recall having that feeling, but that image—so specific, so gorgeous—caused me to have great empathy for people who see themselves that way.

I’ve mentioned before the importance of intentional reading. This is the difference between reading as a writer and reading as a reader. One is not better than the other, but if you are a serious writer, there is a difference in intentional reading for your craft versus reading for pleasure or other purposes.

As my Annotation Nation co-founder and Fiction co-editor, Kate Maruyama said in our guidelines:

If you loved it, (and “it” can be anything from POV, character development, narrative, dialog, setting, sentence structure to use of metaphor and so on) how do you think the writer did that? How can you learn from his or her technique? If you hated it, what has reading this work taught you to avoid? How did the experience of reading the book inform your own writing?

It’s an important skill and one worth developing.

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