A Narrow, Intimate Space: Mentorship as Mirror
Benjamin Ludwig | August 2016
AWP celebrates the Writer to Writer participants of Spring 2016. We invited mentors and mentees to share their recent experiences in the mentorship program.
We had some things in common, which helped. She had worked for two summers in Alaska, and I had lived there. Her work-in-progress was about an artist, and so was mine. She worked as a librarian, and I’d worked as a mentor for English/language arts teachers for years. What did it, though, was her writing. Colette’s manuscript.
But the idea itself—the idea of mentoring another writer—was exciting to me as well. Despite all my experience training English teachers, I’d never worked with another novelist. Also, I was enrolled part-time in an MFA program and was fairly certain that I wanted to teach in a program myself. With my first novel under contract at HarperCollins and an award-winning novella already in print, I’d be putting myself out on the academic job market in less than year. Participating in Writer to Writer, AWP’s mentorship program, seemed like a great way to make sure I would love the work. I mean, it was teaching, and teaching was what I was all about, right?
Well, no. It wasn’t teaching, at least not in the traditional sense. And teaching, as it would turn out, wasn’t what I was about at all. Not after what happened with Colette.
Writer to Writer, conceived and run by Diane Zinna, Brittany Taylor, and Kenny Lakes, matches an experienced writer with a less experienced writer to work on “craft, revision, publishing, and the writing life” for a three-month period of time. Some of my fellow mentors this session (Spring 2016) included Alice Sebold, Fred Arroyo, Emilia Philips, and Claude Clayton Smith. There were discussion questions, but we didn’t have to follow them. There were suggested activities, but we could skip those, too. The only requirement was that each of us use our time to accomplish what our mentee wanted to accomplish. There was no syllabus, no mandatory packets or deadlines. There were no reading lists. It didn’t feel anything like the teaching I’d done or the teaching I’d received.
I selected Colette out of a set of twelve potential matches. I imagine it’s similar to what agents and editors do every day, reading through partials. It’s really important to mention that Colette was already one hell of a writer. She’d attended countless conferences and workshops, and she helped organize a literary festival every year. She wrote every day, regardless of what else might be going on in her life, and read constantly. I read through an excerpt of her manuscript, Red Alaska (Red? Why red? Did it have to do with blood? I couldn’t wait to find out), and loved it. It had all the elements of a great novel: a strong protagonist with a mysterious past, an exciting location, and clearly drawn conflicts. The one problem with the book was that her character didn’t actually want anything. I mean, she (Lucy, a twenty-four-year-old artist working on a halibut boat) was tremendously conflicted, but she wasn’t actively seeking a change in her life or pursuing something. She had a strong voice, but stumbled through the plot, along for the ride. Still, the voice was there, and the narration was flawless. It would be easy to get the book into shape. All Colette needed was for someone to talk with her about Lucy’s desire, or lack thereof.
So I told Diane that I would be honored and excited to work with Colette, and Diane asked Colette to review my application. You see, I had to apply as well, which is yet another thing I loved about the program: the students get to choose their teachers. So when Colette said yes, I was overjoyed. Then it was time to get to work.
In our first few exchanges by phone and email, Colette listened to what I had to say about Lucy, understood the problem, and set about fix it. Like I said, she’d already made herself one hell of a writer, so she understood what it meant to have an active character. Still, working it out (as all fiction writers know) would take some to do. So while we worked on getting Lucy to want something (The man in the shower? The man in the shower’s brother? Acknowledgement from her two parents, who’d just purchased one of her paintings without realizing it was hers?) Colette started asking me questions about my own work and process. She was particularly interested in my path to publication, how I found my agent, and my career plans. When she asked how I plan to support my writing in the future, I said, “I want to teach in an MFA program.” It would be a pivotal moment in our relationship, as well as in my own understanding of what it meant to be a mentor.
“So why aren’t you doing it yet?” she asked.
“Because I haven’t finished my MFA,” I answered.
She was confused. “But you have a book out already, right?”
“Yes—but in most programs, you have to have the degree in order to teach,” I answered. “That, and usually one or two books. I’m going about it a bit backwards, but still.”
“Wait. The only reason most people want to get an MFA is to learn how to write a book, but you’ve already written two. Shouldn’t that count for something?”
And I found myself saying, “If it counts for anything, it ought to count to show you that you can do it too. Being in an MFA program is just a more formalized way to develop the lifestyle of a writer. Whether you’re in one or not, writers who end up publishing have done exactly what you’re doing now. You’ve given yourself the equivalent of an MFA. This mentorship, all the conferences and workshops you’ve gone to, your reading and writing habits, the literary festivals, the readings you’ve attended—you’ve essentially created your own MFA. You’re living a literary life. That’s why you’re so damn good.”
And then she said the magic words: “Hey, that makes sense. I didn’t realize it until you said it, but you’re right.”
Now, I knew perfectly well that what I’d observed in Colette could have been observed by countless other people. Why hadn’t any of them said it to her? The answer, I believe, is because she’d never had a mentor. She and I were working strictly one-on-one, with nothing and no one to distract us. In a classroom setting, the context to be so directly personal simply doesn’t exist. At least not in the workshop itself. For example, if a professor was directing a workshop, and said that a certain student “had what it takes,” or was extremely talented, all the other students would simultaneously wonder, “But what about me? Do I have what it takes, too?” Such direct, personal praise toward one student, no matter how accurate, just doesn’t belong in a group. But it’s essential—as is direct, personal criticism, which also doesn’t belong in workshop.
So I credit the structure of Writer to Writer—the utter free-form purity of it—for giving me the scaffolding to say what Colette needed to hear. More importantly, Writer to Writer allowed our focus to roam when and where Colette wanted it to, which is why we could talk about other projects (she has another novel, by the way, called The Flood, which is equally as impressive), process, and careers.
I also attribute an important realization of my own to the structure of Writer to Writer. Although the experience confirmed that I’ll be quite happy teaching in a fiction workshop, I also know that I’ll want to—no, need to—continue serving as a mentor for other writers. It’s the most powerful form of learning I’ve ever encountered. After twenty years of teaching students and teachers in the public schools, that’s saying something. Whether I join the faculty of a low-residency MFA, or integrate a strong element of mentorship into a full-residency program, I know now that mentorship—not teaching—is what I’m all about.
Because aside from the obvious benefit of one person learning from another, mentorship turns both people into mirrors—reflective surfaces that allow each person to see beyond the surface, the exterior of himself. How far beyond? Far enough to bring out, quite unintentionally, a hidden truth. It’s like chemistry, or conjuring. Put the right elements together, and something new will arise out of what we thought we previously understood. If I gave Colette anything through our time together, it was confidence, and the understanding that she simply needs to keep doing what she’s doing. She in turn gave me a focus for my career.
Our three months ended in May, but Colette and I are still very much in touch. We will be for the rest of our lives, I think. I value her friendship and enjoy her work far too much to lose contact. She’s hard at work on Red Alaska right now, and will be sending out queries soon. When she signs her book deal, I’ll be proud and ready to write the first endorsement.
Benjamin Ludwig, a life-long teacher of English and writing, writes from New Hampshire, where he serves as a teacher coach and mentor. He and his wife are foster/adoptive parents. His novella, Sourdough, won the Clay Reynolds Prize for the Novella in 2013 and was published by Texas Review Press. His debut novel, The Original Ginny Moon, is forthcoming from Harper Collins in 2017.