Literary Mentors: Who are Yours?

I’ve been thinking about literary mentorship. I have just gotten back from the incredible Room of Her Own Foundation's week long writing retreat held at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.

A Room of Her Own's mission is: To inspire, fund, and champion works of art and literature by women.

Over 100 women: poets, playwrights, fiction writers, essayists, etc., gathered in the desert to write and dream together and to build literary community. It was a thrilling and rare opportunity!

I suspect over the coming weeks, all the bits of wisdom that I gained will pour out of me. Right now, however, I am still digesting one particular experience that yielded up unexpected insight.

Besides the week long master classes that met for three hours a day, participants could also take a one time only ‘Studio Hour’, held for an hour in the morning. The Studio Hours offered sessions on writing development, performance, and the writing life. I decided to check out Dr. Li Yun Alvarado’s Studio Hour on ‘Womentorship’. This session was designed to explore and celebrate “the women mentors who’ve helped pave our way.”

Dr. Alvarado had quotes from the edited volume, Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections printed out on large pieces of paper, placed around the room. We were encouraged to take one that resonated with us.

I chose:

Jennifer Moxley on Susan Howe:

“I was not mentored by Susan Howe, but I was mentored by her writing, and through this ‘invisible company’ I learned a great deal. I suppose I could have a similar ‘library apprenticeship’ with any number of dead women writers, but I have no doubt that the fact that Howe was living and trying to make sense of being a woman poet at the same time that I was greatly increased the meaningfulness of her advice. I replied to her letter, perhaps too quickly or with too much enthusiasm. I never heard from her again. The thrill of engaging an older poet as countless male writers had done was followed by disappointment and self-doubt when the correspondence did not ‘take.’ I was hurt at the time, but thinking about it now, I’m thankful that Howe refused my overture. The message I gleaned from her reticence has been crucial to sustaining my artistic life: to survive you must insist on your own vision in defiance of both style and the silence of others. An important lesson for any writer, but particularly for a woman” (131).

After we chose our quotes we were handed a strip of colored paper with a prompt and encouraged to write for about twenty minutes.

Here’s the prompt I received:  Describe your first encounter with a mentor, a potential womentor, and/or the work of a womentor. Do your best to ONLY DESCRIBE the encounter, voiding commentary about or analysis of the encounter. Simply paint a picture of the moment.

I sat down eager, thinking the words would come easy. I started reflecting on the first person (besides my mother) who showed any interest in my writing. She was a high school teacher and I wrote in her English class a long narrative poem that had a speculative fiction element to it. I don’t even know if I still have the poem, but I remember working on it for weeks. It was the first long form creative writing I ever attempted. I had just started reading fantasy fiction and wanted to enter into that world. I remember her being kind and encouraging to me. I remember she would ask me about writing for many months after that and suggest books that I could read. She treated me as if I was already a writer and a part of a special club.

And, then much to my surprise, I couldn’t recall having another female (or male) mentor for my writing life until five years ago. I’ve had wonderful teachers, cheerleaders, encouragers, supporters and fans along the way. But, in writing this prompt, I it became really clear to me that I didn’t have a literary mentor, in the full sense of the word until recently. A literary mentor is someone who not only teaches you about craft and the writing life and reads your work, but also shares information about the bewildering world of publishing, introduces you to people, and perhaps nominates you for fellowships and writing residencies. A literary mentor is someone invested in your inner creative live in a deep and profound way.

It seems strange that I hadn’t realized I had been missing a mentor before now. Still, it came as a revelation, one that made me angry and then sad. I think the sadness stemmed from the fact that I am a professor (in women’s studies) and I love to mentor students and am good at it. It is a unique kind of emotional labor. Although the work of mentoring is not easy, it is something I gravitate to.

I think at one point in my life I yearned for a kind of mentoring intimacy that wasn’t available for my creative life. When the group reconvened, we discussed our varied experiences with mentoring. Although I understand that lots of writers are never deeply mentored, it still felt important for me to acknowledge a powerful absence that shaped a good chunk of my writing life.

I am profoundly grateful that a mentoring relationship evolved with my primary writing teacher over the past five years. Although I have thanked her often and publicly, and acknowledged that she saved my writing life, I sent her an email yesterday telling her how much I appreciated her. I met her when I was 41 and I probably would have stopped writing if I hadn’t met her when I did.

What's been your experience with mentors, especially female ones? Have you had a female mentor that supports your creative life? How did that relationship evolve?

To help you percolate ideas, you may want to try writing any of these prompts that Dr. Alvarado provided:

-Brainstorm a list of potential metaphors that could be applied to you, to your womentor and/or to your womentoring relationship. Now use that metaphor or metaphors as a central element in a poem, a series of poems, or a narrative piece of fiction or nonfiction

-Write a letter from your mentor to you.

-Write a poem or series of poems with the title 'Womentorship'


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