Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mentors

Sylvia Plath wrote the following in her journal in August 1952:

"... I asked her about a lot of things - how she got writing and where published, and where worked. She talked nicely to me ... she understood about how I was critical of my story, didn't like it now as much, and how it was best writing actually, the process, not the product."

This describes her visit to the bookmobile where writer Val Gendron worked. Among other things, Gendron advised writing four pages (1000 words) a day. Plath also wrote: "... I will make a good part of Val Gendron part of me  - someday. ... She has said I may visit her: a pilgrimage - to my First Author."

A couple of weeks later, she did visit Gendron's home, and wrote a detailed entry describing the author's "'shack,'" garden, cats, and writing room with its piles of manuscripts. Plath and Gendron discussed the business of writing, including agents; the craft; and a bit of gossip about other writers (including Rachel Carson, whom Gendron knew).  Plath ended that entry: "I like her, yet not as blindly as could be - I can be critical. But she has lived, sold, produced. And how much she has already begun to teach me." In other words, while Plath was not blinded by hero worship of her "First Author," she respected Gendron's accomplishments and had sought her out as a professional mentor of sorts, a person who could tell her about the reality of trying to make writing a career, the mundane details of writing as craft and publishing as business.

Gendron seems nearly forgotten today, but she published frequently in the mid-Twentieth Century, and at the time they met, Plath was just beginning to publish. I like these entries in Plath's diary because they illustrate the baton-passing, the chain of mentoring, that occurs between writers. In a way, my "First Author" was Kit Reed, who responded most kindly to a fan letter I sent her when I was still in high school, in which she gave advice I had requested about becoming a writer. I can't even begin to count all the writers who have helped me since then--from brief gems they passed along at conferences, to more in-depth ongoing relationships. Since my high-school days, it has become much easier to find mentors through the internet, and to find a sort of collective mentoring through sites like Verla Kay's blue boards.

After a while, the support flows both ways, and there is a sort of "co-mentoring" that occurs between writers; we support one another as colleagues. Along with my online communities and my local critique group, I correspond with several writers who are at approximately the same place in their writing careers as I am. People often comment on how supportive writers are of one another, especially in the field of children's publishing, and I think it's much better for us and for our writing than if we were cut-throat competitors. The wonderful thing about writing is that the better a book is, the more it encourages a reader to find other books. In that sense, we all have an investment in not only making our books better, but helping everyone else make their books as good as possible and helping readers find them. In that spirit, I've also participated in a couple of programs where I've mentored writers who haven't yet published.

None of us know whether our careers will turn out to be like Gendron's--solid and successful at the time, but becoming overshadowed through the years--or like Plath's--flaring with a brief, intense light that shines for decades afterward. We only know that we share this dedication to writing, to figuring out how we can best make it work.

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