Mentoring: The Writer You Guide Might Be The Future

April 23rd, 2008 · 6 Comments
by Tara Yellen

After Hours at the Almost Home by Tara Yellen[BS: Yay! Another guest post. We're really excited to feature Tara Yellen, author of After Hours at the Almost Home, a look at community and family and what happens when one person disappears from the mix. Tara, however, is looking at community of another kind: the importance of mentoring relationships for writers. Just loved this post!]

Many years ago, in a graduate writing workshop, the professor—who has authored a long list of novels I admire—surprised us by beginning class with a warning. He instructed us to spend as little energy as possible on the classes that we taught. He told us to keep time with our students to an absolute minimum.

“Teaching, critiquing, working with them. It’ll suck out your writing soul,” he said.

The class got quiet. We were sorry. We’d clearly extracted a good chunk of his.

Was he right? It can certainly be hard work—reading student writing, answering questions, giving advice. Sure, it can be draining. But it’s both my hope and suspicion that mentoring, when done willingly and wholeheartedly, can have the opposite effect. It feeds the literary soul.

And, it might just be integral to the future of literature.

Now, I know I’m not making any sort of revolutionary statement by pointing out that people don’t read much anymore. I was lucky. My hippie parents didn’t allow me to watch television. It didn’t feel so lucky at the time, but, because of it, I read. My mother always had a book in her hand. We played word games in the car and on napkins at Perkins before our pancakes came, and she paid me ten cents a line to memorize poetry (I think I still remember ninety cents of Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger”). My father read poetry to me aloud. Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson. We had shelves and shelves of books—to which I had full access, and I read everything I could get my hands on. I remember reading novels and thinking how amazing it would be to actually write one of those things.

You don’t need hippies for parents to read, but these days, I think, young writers, more than ever, require guidance and inspiration. It’s no longer a given that students—even writing students—love books. I’ve had some tell me proudly, in fact, that they never read.

I was initially skeptical of writing programs. I thought that young writers should go out and see and do things. Study ancient African history. Figure out how to build a proper compost. Figure out how to build a proper house. Live. Read. Write. If you want to write, you will. You won’t be able not to.

And there’s some logic in that.

But it’s important to remember that we no longer live in a world where writers are automatically fed and primed by what they have around them. Instead, there is wonderful, delicious, big-screen TV, prechewed entertainment, video games. Kids don’t have as much free time—there are activities and sports and more activities and carpools.

Out there—it’s no longer a book world.

So we create one. I still advise students to double major if they choose to major in creative writing as an undergraduate, but writing classes do provide an environment where we can bring reading and writing to the forefront. Teachers can inspire—and be inspired. In the best of worlds, it becomes a symbiotic relationship.

My mentoring has helped me enormously. It helps in the immediate sense that I’m reminding myself of good exercises, different things to try–but also in that it puts me outside myself, it give me another lens on the world. In addition to teaching, some years back, I helped run a mentoring program for middle school girls, and I was astounded by the difference just a few hours with a kid can make—for everyone involved. I have hippie parents, so I can say it: there’s some sort of energy transference between mentor and mentee. And, in that, something happens.

And I don’t think it’s a soul being sucked.

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Check out After Hours at the Almost Home here. Read an excerpt, play on the Unbridled Books site here.

File Under: Wrapped Up In Books

6 responses so far ↓

  • Elisabeth Payne Rosen // Apr 23, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Tara–

    Thanks so much for reminding us how much even a few hours’ mentoring can mean to any young person, much less a writer. Look at what Dave Eggars has accomplished here in San Francisco with McSweeney’s, etc. Mentoring is ALWAYS mutually beneficial to writers, it seems to me. You said it very well.

  • What’s New in Publishing Blogs this Week « Purple Hearts // Apr 25, 2008 at 5:51 am

    [...] Author Websites.’ If you haven’t thought about this yet, this will help you start.   Why mentor young authors? Tara Yellen gives you very good reasons here.     John Scalzi at ‘Whatever’ wrote a [...]

  • carol stanley // Apr 25, 2008 at 9:41 am

    I just discovered your site here and find it most interesting. I think the publishing business has changed so radically that it is almost impossible to catch the eye of a large publishing house unless you are a super celebrity…Therefore our marketing efforts have to be enormous… and relentless. Devoting three hours a day to the pursuit of success is worth it. Carol…”For Kids 59.99 andOver”

  • Joey // Jan 15, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Hi,
    At the ripe old age of 47, I would really like to begin writing short stories. I have no idea how to start or even find someone who can talk to me about it. I have some great ideas but when I sit down to start, my fingers sit idley on the keyboard and I think to myself, now what. Is there some site that will offer someone to talk back and forth with? Or should I just keep sitting here?

  • Rhiya // May 25, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Hi, i’m a 16 year old girl and a very keen poetry and fiction writter and am half way through my first novel. Unfortunately i am strugling to find a mentor to critique my work and help me improve my abilities. Any help would be much appreciated

  • Judith Briles // Jun 22, 2011 at 5:44 am

    Mentoring is not just about teaching. It is more on inspiring. Sometimes, successful people are molded out of inspiration from their mentors and not primarily out of the facts they learned.