Deb: On Mentors

At the recent AWP Conference in Washington DC, I attended a session called “Writers on Mentors and Literary Friendships.” Part of my interest came from requests that our 49 Alaska Writing Center offer formal mentoring opportunities for writers statewide. The other part came from my admiration for session organizer Jayne Anne Phillips, who has been something of a long-distance muse for me.

Phillips’ own Lark and Termite as well as a number of books that she teaches in her fiction workshop at Rutgers have helped me write deeper and better. She taught me to take risks in language, to consider the spiral form of the narrative, to consider connections that are beyond space and time, to feel one’s way into a story through the words themselves.

On the panel, Phillips spoke of her own mentor, publisher Seymour Lawrence, noting that “literary friendships sustain us.” A mentor convinces you that might actually be able to do this fuzzy and impossible thing we call writing. Though the relationship may in some aspects be personal, Phillips says she believes it is primarily based on the work. As a mentor and teacher, Phillips considers most of her duty to cultivate “addictive, passionate readers.”

Agreeing that a mentor’s primary influence is in matters of craft was Alexander Chee, who says Annie Dillard taught him to write around the best sentences in a piece and to abandon voices that were trapped, nervous, or lazy. From Dillard, he also learned that “you can’t invent the details that matter.”

Washington Post book columnist Michael Dirda spoke of how mentors ease the way into publishing, a comment that sparked some heated discussion about the publishing odds and what good mentoring is all about. From a somewhat surprising source – the organizer of this year’s AWP Conference – came this thought: “The mature writer lives and thrives in solitude.”

Solitude, yes, but most of us also appreciate at least some sense of community. Perhaps the idea is more that there is a season to be mentored, and a season for giving back, even as we continue seek out writers who inspire us.

49 Writers volunteer Lorena Knapp took time recently to introduce me to a couple of online mentoring groups she’s involved with. Technology offers more ways than ever for emerging writers to build relationships with established writers I don’t know yet exactly what sort of mentoring opportunities will grow out of 49 Writers, but e-mentoring is one of the potential programs we’ll be studying over the next several months. If you have thoughts or suggestions, we’d love to hear them.

1 thought on “Deb: On Mentors”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    By chance, on the plane ride to AWP I read a wonderful book called "Mentors, Muses, and Monsters," edited by Elizabeth Benedict, with a great essay by Alexander Chee (who you mentioned, Deb) about learning from Annie Dillard, and an essay by Joyce Carol Oates, about how she never really found a mentor. Also one by Grub Street's Chris Castellani about how Breadloaf became an ongoing source of inspiration for him (place/org as mentor). Looks like the editor of this anthology keeps touring and interviewing authors about their influences and sources of support. (See favorite novel about mentorship: Philip Roth's "The Ghost Writer." I've often wondered if we seek in MFAs and classes what we'd really like to get more directly from a mentor. But how to find the mentor? What a great topic.

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