Emily Wall: Mentoring the Mentor

Welcome to Emily Wall, our featured author for the month of April — which happens to be poetry month! (Go to the Salmon Poetry site to find audio readings of her poetry.)

I hate to open a blog this way, but I’m going to brag a little bit. I’m a lucky poet. I get support and funding from my “daytime job” to do my writing. I teach creative writing at the University of Alaska in Juneau, and part of my job requirement is that I write and publish. Amazing, right? And even better, the university gives me a little pot of money each year to help with that. Most professors here at the university use their money to attend conferences and that’s usually how I get myself to AWP each year. But this year I decided to do something new. As much as I love AWP, my work needs something else right now. After two books of poetry, I feel like I’m in a writing rut. I’m starting a new project (I’m collecting birth stories and turning them into poems) and I wanted a hand climbing out of this rut. It’s been seventeen years since I graduated from my MFA program, and although I have wonderful writing friends who offer me advice and help, I have been craving some more serious mentoring. I spend most of my days mentoring students, reading their work, offering them advice on their poems and stories, and in this sixteenth year of teaching I’m feeling like that well is drying up a little bit too (just to mix metaphors there for a minute). So, what to do?

I spent a few weeks surfing the Internet looking for mentors. For any of you who have done that, you know it’s a bad neighborhood of scams and cash schemes. There are classes of course, and workshops and residencies, but my professional development allowance wasn’t going to send me to Minnesota for a week or Maine for a month. I contacted poet Ira Sadoff, an old professor from my undergrad days, and he agreed that there wasn’t much in the way of support for mid-career writers who need a little push. Why is that, I wonder? Can I be the only writer who needs to be challenged and pushed after graduate school? I suspect most writers have a writer’s group or friends they share with, but I wonder if anyone else wants more too?

One day, as I was wallowing in despair, I was surfing 49 writers (always a good pastime when the writing isn’t going well) and I found that they were offering apprenticeships. Interesting, I thought…I wonder if I could build something out of that idea? I contacted Linda Ketchum to see if we could make this work; she was interested and encouraging. We then spent the next month talking about what I was looking for, and sharing names about who might be a good fit with my work. Eventually we settled on Kelsea Habecker and Jeremy Pataky, both writers I admire and whom I felt could challenge me.

We started the mentorship with a teleconference during which we talked through what I hoped to accomplish and what they were willing to offer. We agreed on “deadlines” for my work, which made me giddy. It had been seventeen years since I had been given an “assignment.” How cool was this going to be? We agreed on an 8-week period of working together. Every month I submit 15 poems to each of them and they have been sending me copious notes and ideas for my work. Both have also sent me a reading list based on what I’m doing in my work, and every so often I open my email to find a writing prompt from one of them.

This mentorship has been electrifying. It is making me see my work in a new way, which is exactly what I was hoping for. One of the most interesting moments for me was Kelsea’s first critique. She focused entirely on diction, and pointed out I’ve become sloppy with my language work. I had to laugh when I read her work, as she used phrases—exact phrases—I use in my introductory creative writing workshop. I teach a class on diction and sloppy word usage every spring, and yet I wasn’t seeing it in my own work. What a gift to have someone rattle me awake in this way.

The other gift is that this has forced me to keep working even in the midst of mid-term craziness on campus. Usually by mid-terms I’m done writing for the semester. But with a monthly deadline I have to keep working. I’m more energized in the classroom too. I’ve talked with my students about this process and I think they like hearing that their professor is learning too, and getting advice, and growing as a writer.

I certainly would recommend this to anyone out there who might be interested in getting a push in their work, or simply getting a wake-up call about writing and our dedication to this craft. And Linda, Jeremy, and Kelsea—if you’re reading this, a thousand thanks.

Emily Wall is a poet and Assistant Professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. She has been published in a wide variety of literary journals and has won several poetry prizes. Her second book of poems, Liveaboard, was published in February of 2012. Her first book, Freshly Rooted, came out in 2007. Both books are published by the Irish Press Salmon Poetry. She did her undergraduate study at Colby College in Maine and earned her M.F.A. from the University of Arizona. Her graduate thesis was a short book of poems titled Toward Juneau. Her graduate thesis reflected her obsession with the landscape of Southeast Alaska and the Pacific Coast and this place continues to inform her work. Emily lives and writes in Juneau, Alaska. You can find her online at: www.emily-wall.com.

1 thought on “Emily Wall: Mentoring the Mentor”

  1. What a wonderful post, Emily. I believe one of a writer's greatest assets is to understand that the more we write, the less we know – and the more we need the guidance of others.

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