[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 professorâ€”who has authored a long list of novels I admireâ€”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.
â€œTeaching, critiquing, working with them. Itâ€™ll suck out your writing soul,â€ he said.
The class got quiet. We were sorry. Weâ€™d clearly extracted a good chunk of his.
Was he right? It can certainly be hard workâ€”reading student writing, answering questions, giving advice. Sure, it can be draining. But itâ€™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 Iâ€™m not making any sort of revolutionary statement by pointing out that people donâ€™t read much anymore. I was lucky. My hippie parents didnâ€™t allow me to watch television. It didnâ€™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 Blakeâ€™s â€œTyger, Tygerâ€). My father read poetry to me aloud. Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson. We had shelves and shelves of booksâ€”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 donâ€™t need hippies for parents to read, but these days, I think, young writers, more than ever, require guidance and inspiration. Itâ€™s no longer a given that studentsâ€”even writing studentsâ€”love books. Iâ€™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 wonâ€™t be able not to.
And thereâ€™s some logic in that.
But itâ€™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 donâ€™t have as much free timeâ€”there are activities and sports and more activities and carpools.
Out thereâ€”itâ€™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 inspireâ€”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 Iâ€™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 makeâ€”for everyone involved. I have hippie parents, so I can say it: thereâ€™s some sort of energy transference between mentor and mentee. And, in that, something happens.
And I donâ€™t think itâ€™s a soul being sucked.