2017, Archives, July 2017, The MFA Years

What Is a Mentor, Exactly?

On Father’s Day, a former creative writing professor of mine from college (let’s call him B) wrote a long and eloquent post about his thankfulness not only for his father but also for a dear mentor of his. This mentor had been B’s professor when he was an undergraduate many years ago. He had given B advice and guidance when B was rejected from graduate school, had continued to read B’s stories after B had had said mentor for workshop, and had introduced B to his literary agent. I acknowledge that this was a Facebook post and thus I certainly don’t know the full context of this mentorship. What I do know is that when I read that post, I felt a little jealous, although it was hard to parse out the exact nature of that jealousy.

B’s post made me wonder, how common is it for writers to have mentors in this day and age, and what is the nature of those mentorships? How do different people interpret the idea of mentorship? On the one hand, it seems like the demands placed on writers are greater than they’ve ever been, that time is a valuable and dwindling resource. Writers are professors or copywriters or lawyers or temp workers. They are friends. They have family members. They have myriad obligations. On the other hand, if a person is in the position of having achieved writerly success, likely that person has had some help along the way, and wouldn’t the magnanimous action to take be to pay it forward, specifically to emerging writers who would stand to benefit the most?

A friend of mine who completed her MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at Tisch described to me her experience with the mentorship of two graduate professors of hers, both women working as composers, lyricists and/or book writers in the New York musical theater scene. In my friend’s own words (with names changed) “…R encouraged me to create impossible worlds and call them musical theatre…” and “K helped me gain faith in myself as a composer, and inspired me as a woman of color to believe in my own vision and to assert that vision in white spaces.” When I asked my friend if she imagined these professors would continue reading her work in the future, her response was valuable to me in examining my own notions of mentorship; she answered that she already knows what her work is, what she wants to achieve with it, and so these mentorships are significant more so in providing advice on how to navigate the industry and the world of New York musical theatre. This was a good point. I know, for the most part, what I want my writing to be, and if I do want feedback on my writing, I have networks of peers both in Tuscaloosa and in Los Angeles who can be that community for me, who can offer their insights and notes.

One reason I’ve been contemplating the idea of mentorship lately is that in fall, I’ll be starting my third and final year of my MFA program. I’m definitely a planner, and while I know that I’ll move back to Los Angeles after I finish the program, I don’t know much beyond. I would prefer not to move back without further education and/or a job already lined up (because, y’know, everything costs money). I’m going to apply to a few PhD programs and teaching positions, and I’m looking into the possibilities of working in nonprofit management, ghostwriting, copywriting, etc. Who knows? All of this uncertainty about the future makes me wish someone would just swoop in and say, “Hey, let me introduce you to so-and-so!” or “I know about this job opening up that I think would make a great fit, let me make a phone call.” So maybe that’s where my slight jealousy of B stems from–that he had someone looking out for him, that he had someone who seemed invested in his future.

I’ll admit, I’ve spent a significant amount of time and energy cultivating relationships with people who are somewhat further in their writing careers than I am. If I knew that not a single one of those people would ever offer to do more than grab a coffee with me once a year, I like to imagine that I would still maintain those relationships, that I don’t keep up correspondence with anyone who I don’t genuinely find interesting in his/her/their own right such that their company wouldn’t be worthwhile in and of itself. Still, it would be nice to have mentorship, the definition of which I’m revising, for myself, to mean somebody who’s looking out for me, someone I know I can go to for advice or with concerns and count on for a response, who will help me out to the best of their capabilities. It’s both emotional, the satisfaction of being validated, and practical, the desire not for nepotism, per se, but to be able to access opportunities to prove myself as a writer, opportunities to which I would not have access without the connections of another.

That having been said, as far as I can tell, most of the writers I know don’t have a “mentor” in their lives. They may have at times in the past, especially as undergraduate or graduate students, where they received the attention of their professors, and they may have people who would be willing to write a letter of recommendation or a blurb for a book or who will answer a question every once in awhile. But these writers’ close, sustained relationships are with fellow writers or friends who have offered support in various ways, a generation of folks providing scaffolding towards success to one another. There is also value in the relationships that have nothing to do with writing at all, that allow us to take a break, to consider everything else that constitutes our lives. I’ll be curious to see what I’m doing a year from now and how my current ideas of mentorship and community are sure to evolve.

P.S.–I’m rekindling my “Currently…” section from my first year, so here ya go!

Currently Cooking/Preparing: Homemade sushi and margaritas with fresh strawberry and lime juice

Currently Watching: Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (check out this Netflix documentary if you get a chance!)

Currently Listening: Explosions in the Sky (good background music for writing)

Currently Reading: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Bird (definitely worth checking out if you have any interest in Oppenheimer and/or the Manhattan Project)