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Mentoring in Writing

August 3, 2009

mentor swan


Question: What do Telemachus, Alexander the Great, Oliver Stone, Richard Branson, Mozart, Naomi Wolf, Anthony Hopkins, Patricia Cornwall, Eminem and Luke Skywalker all have in common?

Answer: They were all protégés.


John C Crosby of the Uncommon Individual Foundation writes:

Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.

I’ll be honest – I have always wished I’d had all of what Crosby speaks of.To me a mentor would have been someone who imparted their wisdom and their insights to assist me in writing better. A person who would have encouraged and helped me traverse the often muddied landscape of creativity. Someone who could have helped link me in with other writers, taught me how to dissect criticism, been tough but kind and given first aid to a battered ego until it was able to stand on its own two feet again.

Granted these are all things we as writers are able to do for ourselves (and should do) but there is something about third party support which makes it, in some ways, more effective than anything we may do for ourselves.

Part of me thinks why invent the wheel over and over again. While individuals learn from their own mistakes, we should be able to learn from other’s mistakes rather than have to go through them ourselves. Plus, a road map or a GPS is always a useful way to get from A to B. And that’s what a mentor can be – a creative GPS with benefits.

Mentoring became the buzz word in business in the 90’s despite the fact it has been happening without the spindoctoring for centuries. Australia research conducted in conjunction with Centrelink and the University of Sydney showed being mentored:

  • broadens your network
  • reduces isolation
  • increases self confidence
  • increases ability to perform your role
  • grows self awareness
  • clarifies career direction
  • progresses career goals
  • develops skill & knowledge
  • helps avoid making mistakes
  • develops organisational knowledge quicker

While these are benefits of those being mentored in a business set up, is writing really any different?

No writer I know would scoff at the opportunity to broaden their network, reduce their isolation, increase their self confidence, clarify their direction, develop skills, knowledge and insider secrets, avoid mistakes or grow their self awareness.

Last week, in the space of five hours, I agreed to act in a mentor role for two people. I’d love to know what was happening astrologically that day. While I’m not exactly “qualified” – I am an expert in the true sense of the word – someone who has walked the path both as a writer and an editor. I also trained as a youth mentor almost a decade ago.

Scribble Pad lists five useful hints for mentoring another writer:

  1. Find out want your mentor wants, not what you want.
  2. Only mentor another writer if you have time.
  3. Gauge whether you’re the best individual to mentor another writer.
  4. Keep in touch
  5. Remember to learn from your mentee/protégée.

These seem to be sensible rules for the road – especially number one and two.

Because I’m time poor I really need to be clear about these new relationships in my writing life and create definite boundaries – more for myself than for those I am working with. I’m the one who often says yes when I need to be say no.

The male writing friend is pretty clear what he wants of my time and help. We’re both hoping this will be stepping stone in an ongoing working relationship, so I’m viewing this more like an transition step, than an ongoing mentorship. The 12 year old protégé’s Mum has a pretty clear idea what she’d like for her daughter, but after reading Scribble Pad’s list, I’m committed to knowing what she’d like out of the relationship. And if she’s even keen on having this sort of relationship. This I imagine could be something that will last for years but be less intense in the here and now. It could actually be lots of fun also.

Like all the adventures I have in life, I am definitely up for this one but Gold Dust (a mentoring programme for writers in the UK) creator Jill Dawson hits the nail on the head when she says writing should always be the priority of all writers. A timely reminder for me as a writer and a would-be mentor.

They often say the teacher will appear when the student is ready, and that readiness I understand now to be the willingness to receive – something all of us should be prepared to cultivate in our every day practise of writing. I honestly do believe you can teach an old dog new tricks because learning is a life long process and as such, you are never too old to be someone’s protégé! You just have to be open to it.

For an extensive list of mentors and their protégés see the Mentor Hall of Fame.

Have you had the experience of being mentored in your writing? Would you offer yourself up in the position of mentor for a younger writer? Were any of your favourite/influential writers mentored as emerging writers?

Jodi Cleghorn will be chanting “I am open to receive” as she prepares for her yearly pilgrimage to the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival this week. Also “I will string together a sensible sentence when I meet Nick Earls.” Follow Jodi’s Tweets @jodicleghorn or her expanding blog Writing in Black and White.
  1. Nick Earls permalink
    August 3, 2009 2:50 am

    Okay, now you’ve got me waiting for that sensible sentence. No pressure though.

  2. August 3, 2009 5:20 am

    Oh my God!! Now I’m going to have to have the guts to come up and present myself in person Nick. No pressure of course 🙂

  3. August 3, 2009 6:02 am

    Ok – so this has got to be one of the funniest set of comments I have seen here… no pressure Jodi…. and guess what? Nick now knows what you look like…

    I am sure I am not the only reader here who will be BUSTING to know what happens over the weekend.

  4. August 3, 2009 6:13 am

    Ok – I never thought of it from the photo angle Annie. I’ll be dragging you with me up to the book tent now for that comment 🙂 So much for the anonymity of internet.

    Now – can we get back to discussions about mentoring…. and Nick – if you’re still reading this string of comments – maybe you could share your mentoring experiences??

  5. August 3, 2009 6:52 am

    Loved this article, considering it is from my new mentor 😉

    Getting consistent feedback from one person can be so useful because feedback from a variety of people will lack consistency and that makes it difficult to gauge progress.

  6. August 3, 2009 7:20 am

    For a while back in high school, I was mentored by one of my teachers (after I was no longer in her class). She helped me to “just write”, to put down on the page whatever it was that wanted to come out that day. She pointed out when I would cut corners in my writing or when sections of a story were awkward. I remember one scene where I wrote a breakup between two characters and her comment was “Rob, you’ve never broken up with anyone, have you?” The honest feedback from someone who I trusted to be constructive but who I also knew would be brutally honest was invaluable.

    I would and have offered myself up as a mentor for young writers. It started in high school when we seniors went into the elementary schools to kick off a writing program and helped the third graders write stories of their own. At the same time, we were writing stories to present to the students. It was thoroughly rewarding to be on the mentoring side of things — I learned so much from the kids about the creative process as well as about my own writing style. I would do that again in a heartbeat. That said, I don’t think I would be comfortable mentoring someone close to my own age or experience, largely because outside of constructive comments or feedback, I don’t know that I could provide an appropriate level of benefit to them given the similar amount of experience. I wonder if I’m alone in that thought? I just think that in order to provide “value”, I would need to have experiences or knowledge that is vastly different (not necessarily superior, just different) from the mentee. What I think I would really like to do is get involved with the schools, to help bring the love of writing to young kids and teenagers.

  7. August 3, 2009 7:32 am

    I’ve been thinking for along time Rob about approaching our local high school about a writers program for students there. I am hoping hanging out with my 12 year old protege will give me some experience and confidence to know what sort of a program to create for a setting like that.

    Though I have to admit just like the drop in chat/discuss/motivate type mentorship.

    And Benjamin – the pleasure is going to be all mine … and glad you weren’t offended by what I wrote 🙂

  8. August 3, 2009 10:20 am

    I often regret the demise of the old apprenticeship system. It seems pretty much to have died out and been replaced by schooling for everyone, here in Europe at least. I think there are several affinities between this system and mentoring. It was a real hands on way of learning and benefiting from the advice of someone more experienced.

  9. August 3, 2009 12:30 pm

    I think it is perfectly possible to mentor someone the same age as you – even someone older than you, so long as there is an appreciable difference in levels of experience.

    All through high school one of my English teachers was pretty much my mentor, although I never considered that the case at the time. But after I left high school, and let writing fall to the wayside to concentrate on “proper” careers, I let the relationship move on to simply friends, and I’ve never since resumed that kind of relationship, whether as the mentor or the protégé. I’ve tended to find muses more than mentors.

  10. August 3, 2009 1:47 pm

    Paul A: The subject of muses is a whole new can of worms – one I would love to explore further with the WA readers – given the interesting discussion you and I had last year about it.

    It is interesting how you let the mentorship slide Paul. Did you consider it an artefact left over from schooling? Did you ever miss it?

    My soul sister remains in contact with her mentor from school. She always says she quite possibly would not have made it back on the rails without the patience and investment of this particular teacher.

    Paul S: I thought about the apprenticeship system when I was writing – though didn’t mention it in my article. We have a relatively strong apprenticeship system here in Australia – though mainly for trade based professions. I don’t think schooling ever quite matches up the a hands on experience under the patient auspice of someone more experienced. It was interesting to note that Jill Dawson mentions in her article on the Gold Dust site that many students of creative writing enrol in Masters programmes in the hope of finding a mentor – but all they find is lots of critique of literature and opportunities to network with other writes, and pay thousands of dollars for what essentially is NOT the experience they were expecting.

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