Finding the Right Mentor

The Japanese word sensei is often translated as teacher. If you take apart the kanjiImage, it means “[one who] was born before.” The implication is that this person has something to teach because they’ve been there and done it before you. It doesn’t mean they are superior to you. Finding the right mentor is an important step toward mastery of any craft.

Worship Smothers Growth

For the last forty years or so, there have been lots of pop-culture ‘gurus’ who propagate their teachings as an image or product. They fall in love with themselves as the conduit, and insist they have all the answers. At their core, they are narcissists. Narcissists don’t have friends or students; they have slaves. Bad teachers will spoon-feed you answers in exchange for your worship, and never ask you grow or understand.
Growth Replaces Worship
A true mentor/student relationship is based on reciprocity. The master applies his intuition, skill, and careful listening to help the student grow. The student asks new questions incessantly, helping the master re-examine his craft and exercise new levels of patience. With no ego or worship on the line, both feel free to exercise their craft. You wind up progressing and co-creating together. A good mentor doesn’t want you to be them, they want you to be you.A great teacher will help you reach the next level. Learn well — that teacher will be you sooner than you think.

Don’t follow in the footsteps of old poets, seek what they sought.”
― Basho

Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.”
― Bruce Lee


8 thoughts on “Finding the Right Mentor

    1. redcapslice Post author

      I would say they come from unexpected places, but that’s not really true in my case. I was out doing something that was deeply and personally important to me, and someone a few steps ahead liked what I was demonstrating. It’s a lot like building a friendship — but a meaningful and well nurtured friendship.

      Wearing your enthusiasm and openness on your sleeve certainly helps.

      Have you had, or do you have a mentor? How did you meet?

      1. Margit Sage

        I don’t have a writing mentor. I started writing two years ago as a career change. I created a writing group a year and a half ago with classmates from a community college fiction writing class. I think I’ve grown and learned things from the group, but the other members are all younger than I am and less experienced writers at this point, since I’ve been writing full-time. I highly value their input, but I think I could learn different things from a more experienced mentor.

        I have had vocational mentors in my former life: teachers and coworkers. And I have life mentors in friends and family.

      2. redcapslice Post author

        Specifically a writing mentor. Great! Intention is set.

        What are you looking for in a mentor? If you could picture the perfect mentor for yourself, what skills would he or she have? What kind of person do you imagine him or her to be? Which aspects of your writing or authorship do you want to work on?

      3. Margit Sage

        I would like to have a writing mentor who has been published, so she can share her story of the querying and pitching process (and/or the self-publishing process if she has been sucessful with that route). I would like a mentor who can recommend which writing conferences are worthwhile and which are a waste of time and money. I would like a mentor who is willing to read at least some of my work and critique it, not only line by line, but overall for everything a short story or novel needs to have or be: character, plot, consistency, tension, etc. I want to feel comfortable talking to my mentor; I want them to make me feel at ease, like I can ask her any question I have. She can’t be intimidating. I want her to help me figure out what my best path is to success: should I try to publish short stories in magazines before I shop my novel around so I have some credentials to put in my query letters? Should I go for an MFA in writing (my degreees are both in engineering)? Should I just polish my novel the best I can and let the writing speak for itself? I want her to be the kind of person who coaxes me to ask creative questions, and who speeks her mind freely.

        Most of all I want to work on developing a routine for writing consistently. I seem to write in bursts of productivity, and I would rather write a little every day than too much infrequently. I would also like to work on my vocabulary. My husband criticizes my writing style as colloquial. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, necessarily, but I think that somtimes I have a tendency to overuse certain words, so I’m excited I just bought two huge thesauruses, because the online ones kind of suck. I recently went to a book club where Constance Hale was the speaker, and was truly inspired. Her book Sin and Syntax is awesome. I think I have a lot to learn there. I’ve dog-earred tons of pages. She’s coming out with a new edition this summer and I’m definitely going to get it too, so I can go over the material again with new examples to reinforce it. I guess what I’m getting at is, I think I could improve my grammar. I’m not sure if it’s worth the time and money of getting an MFA though. Not if my goal is to just write.

  1. redcapslice Post author

    Margit —

    This is a bit long. If you don’t have the time, the gist of it is: I offer my friendship, and I’m here for you.

    And now for the useful bits. This is what I’ve picked up so far.

    Querying & Pitching vs. Self Publishing:
    Unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all pitch and query format. So much of it is to do with you, your voice, and your ability to convey a sense of truth. Most readers have an excellent bullshit-detector, and that goes double for industry professionals. and taught me the most about writing your marketing material (query letter/synopsis) what helped the most, unfortunately, was reading through EVERY SINGLE ONE to develop an intuitive sense of what works and what doesn’t work. The only tip that comes to mind immediately is that a synopsis is like a short story. It needs a beginning, middle, end, hook and most of all good, clear writing.
    Self-publishing will work for you if you have a strong sense of marketing and if you’re willing to bootstrap the project yourself. That means purchasing an ISBN, perhaps hiring an editor, and going to conventions where you can rent out a booth and sell your books personally.
    I’m a little wary of the self-publishing route because I know my stuff needs to be vetted a few more times before it’s ready.

    Pick something close by and cheap. That’ll give you a sense of what to expect from a conference. Most of all, look at the panels and list of guest speakers. Are these people that work with your kind of book? I write fantasy that focuses on the thrillin’ heroics of Uberfrau, so a convention for Romance Writers of America would likely be a huge waste of time for me. Are you going to learn about the industry? Meet agents to show your work to? Identifying specific goals make your path a lot easier.

    Macro/Micro Critique
    It’s really difficult to find objective eyes that come up with relevant and helpful critique. A community of writers helps with that immensely. That creative nurturing you’re looking for, as well as the free-open conversation will also come from a group – if it’s the right group. Finding your tribe is unspeakably important for a well-rounded and full life. Even if you join a knitting group and pass your book around to them, your tribe will give you the feedback you need.

    You need an MFA to go the academic route, for sure. Is it worth it to get the degree to help your career? Probably not. To be a writer, you need to be a good WRITER. Grabbing a syllabus and reading all the stories on there might help, and you can certainly do it on your own time and not spend a dime for the education. That brings me to your concerns about vocabulary and grammar. Read. Read read read read read. Watch movies, listen to the radio, and dive in to a variety of genres. I completely ignored cowboy movies and horror flicks growing up, but they’re teaching me a lot about tension in very different ways. Watch movies you assume you’ll hate, and analyze them for technique. If it pulls you in, or excites your emotions, watch it a 2nd or 3rd time and figure out why.

  2. Pingback: In Search of a Mentor – Part 2 | IM Made Easy

  3. Pingback: Mentoring, Teaching and Training | Startup Iceland

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