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On Mentors

I spent time with a writer friend the other day who said, in a wistful tone of voice, that she’d like a mentor. “But how do you even get one?” she asked.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this lament from a writer, and for a while, I thought getting a mentor sounded pretty amazing. It’s so easy to Hollywood-ize the idea into an inspiring training montage with said mentor, at the end of which, you (pick your poison) write the best book ever! Land a top agent! Get a six-figure publishing contract! Become well-known throughout the land as an amazing plotter/world builder/ace of characterization/wordsmith!

But moving from the realms of fantasy into reality, the first thing that strikes me is that in most fields, mentors expect to be paid. If you’re part of corporate culture, then maybe a higher-up will take you under their wing, but they get paid a salary to do their best work for the company, and one of the things they’re getting paid to do (perhaps not explicitly, but still) is to help fellow employees on lower rungs of the ladder.

In other environments, payment is still the name of the game. For example, I wrote about the differences between developing writers and developing musicians, and one of those differences is that most musicians have mentors helping them along; namely, their teachers. But musicians are giving their teachers money for lessons. The same is true for dance classes, art classes, and martial arts classes. Even Buddhist teachers are typically offered dana (donations) for their time instructing people in spiritual matters. And typically once you stop paying for services, your mentors have less time to help you because most of their time is being given to the people who are helping them pay their bills.

Another issue is that of connection. Not every mentor is right for every person (and this is true whether we’re talking about writing or music or martial arts or any other discipline). I had a well-respected writer read my work a few years back. She has a reputation for taking newer writers under her wing and helping them out, but she didn’t connect with my work, so she didn’t do that for me. This is a good thing. She wouldn’t have been able to help me the way I needed to be helped. She’s helped others of my friends with whom she was a better fit, and I’m really happy for them. But I needed to learn from other people.

Photo by Jose Tellez

At this point I’m not actively seeking a mentor because I feel like I already have several, and I’m finding more all the time. They’re not mentors in the fantasy montage sense of the word, but they help me learn and grow and become a better writer (and isn’t that the point?) I have one friend who I rarely speak to, but whenever I do he inevitably tells me exactly what I need to hear career-wise. I have my plot whisperer, my structure maven, and my YA crew. I have Nancy Kress’s voice in my head reminding me to write in scenes. I have several books on writing that keep me pushing my boundaries. I have a friend who made me think more deeply about first person. I have my blogging writer models. And I have all the writers of all the novels I have ever read.

We find mentors and teachers all the time. They may not fit our preconceptions of who those people should be, how they should act, or what they should look like. But sometimes we just have to pay enough attention to notice that they’re there.

Or else, you know, pay someone money. That works too.

But even then, having a mentor is not a magic bullet, nor a replacement for time, effort, practice, and hard work. They can give you a helpful hand along the way, but what happens from there is up to you.

What has been your experience? Who are your mentors, and how did you find them?

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