I’ve taught writing for many years – I guess 15 counts as many, doesn it? I love sharing my passion with others, and I’ve had some amazing students over the years who have gone on to their own publishing success. I’m very proud to count among my former students Becky Hall (http://www.beckyhallbooks.com/)
and Anne Bowen http://www.annebowenbooks.com/ who have both achieved wonderful success with their children’s books. I was fortunate to grow with them and become a better writer as a result of working with them.
My good friend and writing partner, Jared Anderson, is another success story. That experience allowed me to learn about my own approach to writing, and I credit Jared with moving me off center and helping me rediscover how passionate about writing I truly am.
Now I am working with another young man, whose name I won’t mention as I haven’t asked his permission. As I work with “G” I find that I am again tuning in more closely to my own work and my own process. Having to delve so deeply into the construction of story always proves to be – at least for me – a very revealing and rewarding opportunity.
I’m not an advocate that you need a degree to be a writer. In fact, I believe that’s a silly statement in general. But getting my Master’s taught me to look at writing – my own and others’ – in a more intensive and intuitive way. I look at word selection and placement in new ways. I try to identify why a writer put things in a certain order, or why a certain word was chosen over so many others available. When I am mentoring, I’m trying to see the bigger picture, to identify what the puzzle will be when all the pieces are in place, but I’m also trying to find the specific details that will help the student to paint that picture in a more meaningful way. I want to show my students that there are layers to their work that even they may not know about.
Recently, while talking to G about an assignment I gave him, we were discussing a particularly interesting character. I began asking him some questions about the stress level in this character’s life, about her inner thoughts, and G said, “How did you get in my head and figure this out when I couldn’t even tell what it was?”
That was a compliment indeed.
All I really did was looked a few layers deeper at what he was trying to achieve. I pushed him down a flight of stairs that he was happy to stand at the top of and simply look. But what also happened was that I began looking at my own writing and realizing how often I need that same push.
This might be the best thing about mentoring someone else: I get so much out of the experience it almost becomes more beneficial for me!
Of course – not all my experiences have been so positive. There was the librarian in Texas who thought rhyming stories all about a happy, goofy librarian were guaranteed to make kids smile. When I told her that most kids’ books feature a child protagonist, she began citing chapter and verse all the books that didn’t do that. “Yes,” I explained, “and when you are famous enough to have a name that will carry a book like that, you can write it. But until then, good luck selling this concept.” She wasn’t too happy with my reply.
Then there are the people who want you to mentor them, but really what they want is for you to tell them the name of your agent or editor and then to have you call that agent or editor and get this person a book sold.
Yes – that happens. Yes – frequently.
It used to be that I would offer to work with anyone who asked for my help. These days, I’m a lot more picky. Frankly, I don’t have the time I used to have. I’m busy writing my own books and trying to move my career to the point where it is full-time rather than part-time. And these days, too, I’m really only interested in working with people who take their writing as seriously as I take their writing. They need to show some initiative, and be willing to work. Writing is HARD. And the creation of the story is the easy part. It’s the business side, the marketing, the dealings with publishers and editors that are the real challenge in this business.
I love mentoring, and I hope I can continue to do it as long as I continue to write. I was blessed to have great mentors like Alison McGhee, Tim Wynn-Jones, Sharon Darrow, M.T. Anderson, Carol Lynch Williams, and many others who helped to guide me on my journey. I hope I can do as well for others as these wonderful people have done for me.