Each One Teach One
Nothing has made more difference to my writing life than working with mentors — writers with more experience than I had at the time who could encourage me to push myself and my writing further than I know I’d have been able to do working on my own. I can’t say enough about how that has transformed my poetry, fiction and non-fiction work. If you think your work could benefit from an experienced set of eyes, here are 5 good reasons to find a writing mentor, along with what and what not to expect once you find them
Working with a writing mentor will mean external deadlines. Based on mutual agreement, you’ll identify a regular time period for you to submit your work and receive feedback. If you are the kind of self-disciplined angel who takes deadlines seriously no matter who sets them, then may life continue to shower blessings in your general direction. For the rest of us, having a set time by which we must deliver a poem or story or manuscript to someone else can help get over the internal hurdles we have to force ourselves to jump to get to the page. My own experience is that an external deadline keeps me going when I would otherwise throw in the towel, or possibly use it to strangle my protagonist.
Having someone else read your work with a caring but critical eye will change your work and your writing life for the better. Very rarely do I publish anything that hasn’t been reviewed by at least one other person in some form. This isn’t because I don’t trust my own voice, but because it’s one sure tactic to help close the gap between how I envision a work in my mind’s eye and how it turns out on the page from the initial impulse.
In a writing mentor, you want someone who knows how to give detailed editorial feedback at both a structural and language level and who can do so with care and encouragement. “Always Avoid Assholes” is good general life advice (my kingdom for this on a cross-stitched pillow!) but essential when choosing a writing mentor. Your writing life will be hard enough without having to rehabilitate your creative spirit on a regular basis because you’ve been bullied into thinking you might as well give up.
You also don’t want to be babied and cajoled into thinking that it isn’t necessary for you to do the hard work of revising and editing your own work. I mean, I guess it’s possible that you are the only writer in the world to have written a perfect poem or story in its first draft straight out of the gate, but those odds seem slim to me. If you find yourself routinely loving the sound of your own voice on the page, you might want to consider getting an honest (caring and critical) review of your work.
Every writer – even the most lauded and most experienced — has areas in which they can improve. (And every writer knows it, no matter how confidently they present themselves to the public.) Honest feedback has transformed my work over the years and I am deeply grateful to the writers who have helped that happen. I flat out adore them – what an incredible gift they’ve given me. Look for someone who’ll push you beyond what you think you can do.
You want to be challenged, even though it may (will) sting a little at times. But writers also need encouragement. Sometimes I feel that writers should greet one another with “I love your sentences” instead of “hello” and we’d all feel so much better. When you hate your writing, you hate your life and you probably crap all over yourself and think you’ll never string a strong phrase together again. The temptation to give up – on this poem, this story, this essay, this sodding whole writing endeavour – comes in waves and those waves can be strong.
I once decided to learn surfing on a work trip in South Africa and promptly broke a toe not ten minutes in the water – this is what writing feels like to me. Constantly being pounded by the surf of “not good enough.” And some of this is right and good for the work but still hard on the soul. A good writing mentor can help counteract some of this by pointing out the specific ways in which your work sings and how to strengthen what is croaking or only coming through in a whisper. They can give you an extra boost of faith in your work, even just by reflecting back to you and reminding you of your mutual love of the craft.
The best writing mentor will be a working writer. S/he/they will be getting the job done for themselves, showing up to write in the middle of the day job, the kids, the aging parents, the dog barfing on the rug. They will be actively engaged with improving their own work and reading constantly. If your writing mentor doesn’t once suggest to you that maybe you ought to read this book or examine this writer’s work more closely, then ask them. Use their own commitment to their work and your mutual love of the written word to inspire you to fail better.
How to Find a Writing Mentor
There are multiple ways to skin this particular cat. (Sorry kitty.) Finding the right mentor comes down to knowing what you and your work need at this particular time in your development as a writer.
Note: some of these suggestions involve workshops or courses where you also share your work with other writers. Think of this as a bonus – feedback and new friends in one go! – or as insurance, in case the workshop leader doesn’t fall in love with your work with the adoration you know it deserves. Hey, it happens.
Try an online writing workshop
How to get the most from a writing workshop is another post for another time. But this is probably the easiest low-barrier entry to getting feedback on your work. In some courses, you will only get the feedback of your peers also attending the workshop, but in some there’s also an experienced writer at the helm to lead discussions and provide additional feedback. Several writer friends have done Sarah Selecky’s courses at www.storyisastateofmind.com and been very happy with the results. (Feedback and new writer friends in one go!)
There’s also a longer course (and a bit more expensive) available at Humber College, where you can indicate a preference for a particular mentor and work with them over 9 months. I did this programme many years ago now, working with Canadian short fiction author Elizabeth Harvor who is a favourite author of mine and whose feedback really helped me grow to the point where I was ready for the MFA.
If you want to do more with the technical skills required for editing your own work, Joan Dempsey offers an interesting online option. I haven’t done this course myself but it looks fantastic and Joan shares free resources and tips via her blog and email list.
Consider courses in the real world
A fair number of universities and colleges offer creative writing workshops, sometimes in conjunction with a visiting writer in residence. Even if these are part of degree programmes, sometimes you can register to participate as a special student. These will often be 1.5-3 hour small group sessions once or twice a week where you can meet other writers and share work. Ideally, the professor teaching the course will also be a working writer.
Often, working writers will be offering short workshops in your community. These can be engaging and affordable options and a great way to get feedback on your work and meet other students in person with whom you can connect after the course is over. (Maybe a few of you might like to start a writing group together when the workshop finishes?) 8-week courses where I live are about $200 – amazing value for 8 weeks of regular writing connection and feedback. Again, the best courses are usually run by working writers who know what it takes to continuously improve their writing and get it published. You might find these through signs in coffee shops, libraries or bookstores, or by asking around.
If you find yourself in a real-world course, take advantage of office hours to go see the writer leading the workshop to help them remember who you are and begin to build a relationship. “Hi, please can we build a relationship?” will get you put on a security watchllist – just chill and ask questions to help improve your work, perhaps suggest (or offer to lend) a book they might like. Join in for those drinks or coffee after class if/when they happen, and attend any readings held by the writer during your workshop period. (If you can afford it, buy the book or ask for it at the library.)
Ah, the Rolls-Royce of writing workshops. This is where you travel to a beautiful location and someone feeds you and makes your bed while you write all day long and drink with other writers in the evening. Perhaps you have your own little writing cottage and someone leaves your lunch in a wee basket on the stoop. Or perhaps there’s a large dining room complete with dessert buffet, and you go hiking with the other writers to work off the large stack of pancakes you eat at breakfast. Likely some of your writing heroes teach here and you can be awestruck over pancakes. And if you stay long enough (2 weeks? 5 weeks? 8 months? How long is a piece of string?) and work hard, you may find your work completely transformed when you leave.
The downside of this option more than anything else is the cost.
Particularly in the literary world, writers are often supplementing their pathetic incomes with teaching or mentoring other writers. Identify two or three writers you admire and can reach through email or FaceBook or friends. (Margaret Atwood is unlikely to reply to your emails. If she does, ask her if she’d mentor me, would you?) Then just write an ask them if they would consider a paid mentoring arrangement and if they say yes, follow up to be clear about expectations.
What to Expect from a Writing Mentor
Deadlines and Feedback
Speaking of expectations, of course you should expect deadlines to be set and detailed feedback on your work – according to what is agreed at the start of the course or arrangement. The level of feedback offered may vary, from overall structural notes to line edits, so try to be clear up front what you can expect to receive and when. (Then of course, you have to live up to your end of the bargain and submit work on time.)
Regardless of your level of experience, do expect to be encouraged in your efforts. I don’t mean someone blowing sunshine at you constantly or vague unwarranted praise to boost your self-esteem – if that really is what you need, then a writing mentor is not where you’ll find it. But you should be left with a sense as to how you can improve your work and that you are capable of improving it. Any shining places in your work should be pointed out as much as its deficits. Experienced mentors will always do both. If you are not getting encouragement, leave that relationship behind you as soon as you possibly can, hopefully before it does any lasting damage.
If you’re in a workshop or course, you can expect to read the work of other writers and be asked to provide some feedback to them as well. (See here for how to thrive in a writing workshop.) Use the opportunity to become better at doing close reading and making constructive editing suggestions – this is an essential skill for editing your own work as well. And if you can make a writing friend or two, so much the better!
Yes, you should pay. Don’t be the person towing your latest 300-page manuscript along to a reading to ask the writer to review it for you. Going rates at the moment run from $75/hour to $125/hour. Online courses seem to run in the $300 and up, depending on length and amount of dedicated time from individuals, and offline/real world courses range from $200 to $600 depending on where they are held. Retreat centre programmes and longer term study can be in the $1500-3000 range (plus any lost wages while you are in paradise) and an MFA costs about $25,000 or so and takes 2 years of your life, plus possibly some hair.
A mentoring relationship really only works if you do the hard work of hearing and re-engaging to revise and edit your own work. Like everything else, the learning is in the writing. If you have an astute mentor and do the hard work, you can absolutely expect your writing to improve and may, if lucky, end up with a transformed relationship to your own writing.
What Not to Expect
A New BFF
All of that said, do not expect your writing mentor to become your new BFF. Of course, it may happen that you do become friends (or warm, supportive acquaintances) over time but it’s not a loss if you don’t. The trick to getting the most out of a mentoring relationship is to stay focused on what you want to achieve with your work. Strangely enough, it’s also a good way to build relationships with other writers who love writing – including possibly your mentor.
Nights, Weekends and Holidays
Don’t expect your writing mentor to offer you tonnes of extra free time. Of course you should expect them to spend the time on your work that you are paying for, but be realistic about the time it will take to read your work, think deeply about it in order to engage productively, provide comments and edits, and to discuss the work with you. Some mentors will also provide reading suggestions tailored to where you are in your learning process and what you’re trying to achieve with the work in question. All of this takes time. If you find yourself receiving on occasion a little more than you paid for as your mentor gets excited about what you’re doing together, be aware and grateful – but don’t expect this.
Intros to agents & editors
I do know of a few cases where writing mentors did become BFFs with an emerging writer, critiqued their work over and above paid time and then introduced them to an agent or editor, whereupon the writer(s) went on to publish and acclaim. (Full disclosure: my first poetry book happened that way. Hate me now or hate me later.) It happens of course, but it is rare and no one making even part of their living in this way can afford to constantly expend their social capital to introduce yet another writer to their agent or editor. Again, stay focused on improving the work in front of you and leave the rest aside. Sometimes you get what you don’t expect but most often that’s through not expecting anything in the first place. (Zen koan, that.)
Sleeping with your mentor is gross and will lose you the respect of other writers as word gets around. (And it will.) Don’t do it. Any hint of this coming from your mentor should be a huge warning sign – run fast in the opposite direction.
Other Ways to Get Feedback
There are other ways to get feedback on your writing, if you are just starting to ask people to look at your work or have been walking this path for a while.
Some people rely on family and loved ones as first readers. This is a no-no for me, because I want to keep loving my loved ones and I know I would never forgive them if they hated my work. Ha! Kidding! (Not kidding.) But if you are more grow’d-up than I am, you might want to consider asking family members who actively read in the genre in which you’re writing. Don’t give your poetry to someone who hates poetry, or your Munro-esque short stories to someone who only reads urban fantasy. If I read George R.R. Martin’s early drafts, I would advise him to ixnay on all the illagingpay and apingray, but that would probably be bad advice for George R.R. Martin. You do you, but raise your artistic standards and only take writing advice from someone qualified to give it.
If you can make a small band of writer friends, then sharing work back and forth to comment constructively can be hugely useful. You want to be sure they know how to offer critique that is constructive and caring, and you want to offer that to them in return….so your writing friends remain your writing friends. We are sensitive beasts and loathe to hang around with people who are dismissive of our work, even if they’re buying.
You might consider starting up a writing group and effectively setting up mentoring relationships among peers. My post next week will be all about how to do that without hating everyone and yourself in the bargain.
I hope you find the mentor you need, one who inspires you to read more, write more and rewrite as needed.
Yours in solidarity,