Each Monday we post content in keeping with the month's theme. Throughout June, we're talking about mentors: who they are, who needs them, how they're found, whether they're right for you and what they might have to offer. Today we hear from Mark Welker about his experience as a mentee.
Image source: Flickr / Gregory Wake
All writers need a helping hand at times. Carver had his editor Gordon Lish. Hemmingway counted no less than Joyce, Stein and Ezra Pound as his closest friends (with occasional visits from Picasso). The Brontes had each other to confide in. Even Bieber had Usher…
The point is, we are not alone. Or at least, we don’t have to be.
A mentor is the person whom you trust to put your writing first, and your ego second. A mentor may be a friend, a colleague, a person of authority, or simply a person on the street willing to listen. A mentor relationship can be monogamous, promiscuous, short or long term. You may already have a mentor, you just don’t know it.
When I left Perth for Melbourne a few years ago, I had had an inkling for a while that I was a good writer. But what I wanted was to be a great writer. And I knew I couldn’t do it alone.
Day-to-day many of us work in incredibly structured, corporatised environments, featuring support mechanisms and reward systems that (in theory) get the best work out of us.
Creative writing, on the other hand, is mostly carried out in the worst kind of workplace; an environment devoid of rewards, rife with distractions. A place without rules, evaluations or any of the checks and balances that ensure output remains on track.
This kind of anarchy can be great for creativity. But it can also leave things incredibly open-ended (i.e. unfinished).
When I went after a mentor I knew that I wanted structure back in my writing. I wanted deadlines, I wanted accountability. I wanted someone independent to look at my work and tell me not just what was wrong with it, but how it could be better.
I had a stroke of luck in that I had recently been awarded a government ArtSTART grant, which meant I could afford to pay a private mentor upfront. That said, I came to realise that even without this funding, the affordability of a mentor was no heavier a financial commitment than signing up to a gym (and far cheaper than a university degree).
I found my mentor through a publishing contact I had made; someone who had read my work and could suggest a good person to mentor me. It’s essential that whomever you choose as a mentor be well matched to your writing. They have to ‘get you’, which doesn’t mean the same as ‘like you’. They just need to understand what your intentions are.
We met once a month for the first three months, then once every six weeks from there to allow me more time to work up my drafts.
A week before our meeting I would send in a draft of whatever I was working on, allowing enough review time for suggestions. Afterwards I always made sure to book in the next session, so things were never left open ended.
A four week schedule is actually more challenging than you would think. After each meeting I would usually give myself a week to relax, and then realise that I only had two more weeks to get the next revision/piece delivered. Which meant four weeks became two for me.
Each session involved looking over the story, me explaining my intentions and my mentor providing commentary on its merits and suggestions for improvements. It was rarely about what he did/didn’t like. Instead, a lot of the time was spent discussing other authors and texts that he felt were trying to achieve similar things.
I began to learning from writers such as Borges, Faulkner, Nabokov and David Foster Wallace, and in a way that I never had whilst at university. These weren’t just writers on a group syllabus, these were texts on my syllabus, matched to what I was trying to achieve.
Over the course of the mentorship, lasting a little under eight months, we worked through five stories. I consider these stories to be the best of my career thus far; pieces that are complex and rewarding. Stories that I love to re-read.
Sadly I eventually stopped the sessions due to work commitments, convinced that I would be back after a short break. Work then became my focus for more than a year, and following that I started a small business. And so the story goes.
I regret stopping, as from that point on my writing struggled to regain priority. I had set aside time and resources to become a great writer, but the longer I left things dormant the more vague and seemingly indulgent the outcome seemed.
Today I still write, but with far less conviction and ferocity than those eight months while being mentored. The relationship seemed to bring the best out of me, and someday soon I will hopefully return to it, when the time is right.
If, like me, you make creative promises to yourself that you don’t keep, a mentor may be for you. Here is my nutshell advice for finding a good one:
- Be clear what you want out of a mentor, as that will help determine the best person for you.
- Be open and honest with your mentor about your capabilities. They aren’t there to stick flowers up your butt, hence they need to see it all, especially the bad stuff.
- Find a sustainable frequency that includes balance for the rest of the priorities in your life.
- Commit to the relationship. Always schedule the next session immediately after the last one. A deadline only works when it’s painful to push.
- Start at your local writer’s centre, they’ll usually have a list of suggested mentors to start with.
Mark Welker is a short fiction writer based in Melbourne, Australia. In 2009 he was awarded the Griffith Review Emerging Writer of the Year and has been published in journals such as Dot Dot Dash, Meanjin, Griffith Review and Andromeda.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.