My father has always been my artistic mentor, and he taught me how valuable a creative mind is, how important it is to respect the creative process and not bog it down with over-analysis. But when I decided to become a writer, around age twenty, and I began to study this single art exclusively, I thought it would only be a matter of time before I found a writing mentor. I waited, I grew impatient; but, much to my dismay, no one applied to this unannounced position I wanted filled.
I was sure that I would find that one established writer, someone who had reached many of the goals I made for myself, and that this one person (probably a professor) would fall so head-over-heels in love with my writing and promise that s/he would become a personal guide as I embarked on the writing life. This person would become more than a professor and friend; this person would hold my hand.
I've found many such people who fulfilled this role in the classroom. The first of these mentors and one of my good friends, Dr. Shannon Lakanen, introduced me to creative nonfiction and its masters: Montaigne, Didion, Baldwin, Hazlitt, and, of course, Phillip Lopate. She encouraged me to apply for a Master’s program, an idea I had already dismissed as a possibility. “You have to try, Jen,” she’d said. I only had the money to afford one application fee that year, and so I applied to my first choice, Bennington’s MFA program, and I applied here largely because Phillip Lopate was a professor there and I thought I might have a shot of working with him. Somehow, I got in. And, somehow, I even had the pleasure of working with him and he, like Dr. Lakanen, encouraged me to continue writing and continue my education, and who taught me invaluable lessons about writing and just what it would take to achieve my goals. I worked with Susan Cheever and Dinah Lenney, Sven Birkerts and Bernard Cooper, and for the duration of my program, I felt the pleasure of an available and all-knowing mentor at all times, a person I could always go to with questions and who would offer me much-needed criticism and encouragement.
I can’t say any of these accomplished writers fell head-over-heels, at least not to the extent I had imagined. I didn’t find my Gertrude Stein, and I wasn’t offered any agent’s phone numbers or fellowships. And so, when I graduated, I felt almost as though I had failed at something, and I wondered what I had done wrong, why I had only earned the romantic interlude of literary relationships but no one wanted to commit. I have friends and mentors, and some lasting relationships with these writers and teachers I admire, but no one offered me a room in their home or a detailed road map of the game. I still longed for such a mentorship the way I used to long for love, before I met my husband. It seemed so necessary and obtainable, but at the same time, so far from my reach.
Some writers do find mentorships that are akin to great love affairs; I know because I’ve read such accounts and they largely fed my fantasy. But, much like falling in love or finding a lasting friendship, these relationships can not be forced or planned out, they must happen naturally. What’s more, they never happen when or how you want them to. They just happen.
Since I began teaching in spring, and since I’ve been working at a writing center as a tutor, then coordinator, I began to notice the eager gaze of a budding writer, and although I work with many, many beginning writers on a temporary basis, I never really thought of myself as a mentor. I thought of my role in academia as more of a vessel; I was there to pass along knowledge that had been passed on to me. I still didn’t quite get the fact that some of the writers I worked with were hoping for the same things I was, a mentor and guide, an experienced partner who would steer them through those first rocky years of education and help them to realize a unique voice that would shake up the world, if only they found someone to believe in them.
At this point in my career, I have begun to realize the value of these temporary mentorships from the other side. The energy of students who truly believe they have a calling to write and who will do anything to figure out how to do it best is as valuable a gift as the relationships I’ve had with mentors. I’m yet to own a house with a guest room or secure the sort of literary connections that would attract the more business-minded writers that are just now breaking onto the scene. I’m still breaking in myself, but as my definition of mentorship has extended and as I begin to more fully understand the dynamic, if you will, I find I am less romanticized by the idea of that single literary shaman, I used to wait for. And I value all the more those who’ve reached out to me all the more as I attempt to reach out to my students. As my definition of mentorship has altered, I’ve begun to realize that the reality of this cycle is far more valuable than my original idea. And although I would not turn down a fellowship offered me, I realize that the opportunity sometimes comes in a less concentrated but far more rewarding and equally nurturing form. I am at the crux of this mentoring cycle, and I know that this stage of the game is exactly where I need to be right now.