Previous Writer to Writer Mentees
Spring 2015 Session
Monika Cassel is Acting Chair of Creative Writing and Literature at New Mexico School for the Arts, a statewide arts high school in Santa Fe. She has developed a successful minor in creative writing at the school and will launch a creative writing major there in 2016. Her chapbook is on the longlist for the Venture Award, and her poetry and translations have appeared in Asymptote, Structo Magazine, and Stone Canoe.
Monika worked with writer Rachel Mennies.
What were your goals for this program, and how did you communicate them to your mentor?
My goals were to find another, more experienced writer to discuss issues of vision, craft, research, and the shaping of a manuscript with, and to get advice on publication and negotiating the literary landscape as well. Most of all, I wanted someone who was there to answer questions or discuss ideas without my feeling that I was stealing someone’s valuable time.
How would you describe the matching process and how well matched you were with your mentor?
The matching process was relatively straightforward. It was a thrill to know that I had been chosen as one of the three people for the mentor to choose from, and when I was matched and learned about my mentor and her work, I was flabbergasted at how great the match was in terms of personality, subject matter, and compatibility in our approaches to writing.
Was there a specific time you felt that you and your mentor "clicked"?
Yes, right away, through some of the emails we exchanged. We Skyped once and saw each other once in person (at AWP), but I felt we had already clicked pretty immediately.
What advice do you have for people entering the program next?
Use the modules as a starting point, but don’t be afraid to follow the other topics or conversations they might trigger. Enjoy your mentor and think about how to nurture a lasting relationship! I am glad I took the advice to do a Skype call, too, even though I felt awkward about the idea at first—it did help us bond. Later we moved to email so we could have a record of our conversations.
What is something you learned from your mentor or this process?
I learned that my instincts about writing are more on-target than I thought they were and that, although there are things an MFA would have taught me, I can (more slowly) teach myself many of those things. I particularly learned a lot from hearing about her writing process, in terms of both individual poems and shaping her book. That helped me reflect on my process. Since we have thematically related material, it was great to see how another person approached artistry in her writing.
What is something that happened during the session that you did not expect?
I didn’t expect as much to bond about personal matters, but as women writers who both have partners in the medical profession (her husband is a resident, and mine is in medical school), we had a lot in common to talk about our personal life and writing as well. That was enriching, to take the exchange beyond simply the “professional” and to connect on the personal level as well—and it moved back into being relevant for the writing, because both my mentor and I have written quite personally about our relationship to our family history.
In what ways did this experience differ from, say, taking a creative writing class or workshop?
We didn’t do much in the way of direct writing exercises, though we were exchanging and appreciating work (and are planning on doing more writing exchanges in the future). It felt less formal, and the beauty of the one-on-one interaction was a real difference from a class, where the attention is to the growth of the entire class. As a teacher, I always find myself observing in workshops how the teacher balances individual and group needs in the class, and here I felt able to be focused just on my relationship between myself and my mentor. And the talking around the work, instead of just about the poems, was wonderful. It was also great to get direct, practical advice about some submission questions I had without feeling like a pest or attention hog.
As we worked together, my mentor also emphasized that she saw the relationship as more equal than the mentor/mentee labels might imply, and finding a writing partner has been amazing. I also was able to give her some insights into my work process in translation, which is a field she is not as familiar with, so that was a place where it felt like I had something to offer.
Finally, the thematic connections between her work and mine: Her writing on Jewish identity and my writing on German identity, both informed by World War II and the Holocaust, meant that we have had some deep exchanges about how to connect to our histories and to try to address or heal deep wounds that come from our personal histories. We have also discussed our obligations to addressing social injustice, given our intimate connection to the terrible wrongs that both of our family histories are tied to from opposite ends. While these kinds of meaningful conversations can certainly happen in a class, it was easier to be vulnerable and honest in a setting outside of a class.
How has this experience helped your writing or work process?
It has helped me to feel less alone in the struggles I have at various stages of the writing process; I also really internalized some tips on how to look at my work with more distance, thinking about the purpose of each poem as I revise. And most of all, the program came at a perfect time because I am currently shaping a chapbook manuscript for publication; it was so useful to learn about that process from my mentor as I started thinking in those terms. It has also been really helpful for me to think about and talk about the larger concerns of my project with another person who has thought of similar issues.
Where will you and your mentor go from here, following the formal conclusion of the program?
We are planning on exchanging work with each other as we both work on our manuscripts and plan to stay in touch regularly. We have considered writing poems in conversation with one another but are not jumping into that project now. I think I have gained a lifelong friend and fellow artist through this program and am so grateful.