Every Monday in June we're talking to writers about their experiences mentoring or being mentored. Today Perth-based short story writer Laurie Steed throws some questions around with our Online Editor Sam van Zweden, about their mentoring relationship.
Laurie Steed mentored me for a period of about 3 years, after publishing my work in the literary journal page seventeen, for which he was editing fiction. That was my first publication in print, and our relationship has seen me through the many ups and downs that followed.
My relationship with Laurie started online, and it has had a mainly-online nature throughout. We meet maybe twice a year, when Laurie passes through Melbourne, and there has been the odd phone call. For the most part, Laurie's mentorship has materialised as a supportive presence at the other end of an email.
I was lucky that our mentorship came about organically – I asked for help, and then I asked for help with something else. Eventually, Laurie helped provide some more concrete frameworks for our interactions: regular contact, goal-setting exercises, suggested reading and impromptu meditations on dialogue or ethics all helped formalise our relationship. It also rounded up organically – at some point, we realised that we’d done the majority of the work we would do together. We’re still fast friends, and Laurie remains a huge support (and champion) of my work.
In what follows, we ask each other about our mentoring time together:
Laurie asks Sam:
What were your key goals in attaining and utilising a mentor?
I don’t know that I came in with many long-term goals – admittedly, our mentorship came about accidentally. I didn't know I was seeking a mentor until I had one.
I found it useful to set goals with you, but mainly short-term ones. The more we could break things down the better I fared. Deciding to look at pacing in one piece with you was much easier than figuring out how to get a feature article into a magazine, though you helped with those kinds of things too. I think you might've been the first person to introduce me to the idea that big things happen bit-by-bit. That you don't always know when they're happening. I guess that’s a useful image for your mentoring too – I just searched for your name in my inbox and the written record of all the work we’ve done together is actually quite huge. At the time it was just an email, just some TrackChanges, just the name of an interesting book, just a YouTube clip because I was having a bad day. Such a variety of approaches makes it harder to articulate the specific lessons I learned from you, but they happened.
Were there any things you were afraid of asking? In relation to this, how can mentors ensure the mentee is at their most open?
At first I was afraid of ‘silly questions', but when I asked things like how to invoice, or how to pitch work, and you met me with such generosity and compassion, I gave up worrying about what I didn't know. I was also a bit scared of asking about the shameful things, that I wasn’t sure were specific to me, or to being a writer in general. For example, when personal, emotional stuff stopped me from writing I felt able to thrash that out with you. Or when I was unsure about the ethical implications of sharing family stories, we could talk about it in terms that reached out to the wider world – you gave me reading suggestions around what I was worried about, as well as talking to my personal quandary. (Reality Hunger changed my life, by the way).
And I think that’s the best way to help mentees be open – meeting all of their questions with answers and without judgement, and being open yourself.
Are there skills you would like to cultivate that weren't addressed in our mentoring relationship?
There will always, always, be more to learn. I guess if we did it all again I'd learn entirely different things from you because I'm ready to learn different things.
What key takeaways/lessons did you value most in our time working together?
I valued our mentoring relationship for its breadth. I learned a bit about the craft of writing, a bit about dealing with people, a bit about the business, and a bit about surviving in the world as a person who writes – an awful lot about how to be an emotional wreck and put it into my work. I haven’t got the writing life mastered, but I feel like I have a great foundation thanks to your advice. And you introduced me to Iron and Wine.
Would you look at mentoring a writer at some point down the line?
Absolutely. I feel very much like we all need to pay it forward in some way. Between yourself and a handful of other very generous people who believe in me, I feel like so much of where I am right now is due to other people paying it forward. I also get the sense that those people who have helped me have done so because they recognise some of themselves in me or my work – the process of growing into your work and your career takes so much that perhaps it’s empathy for that.
I hope that in this editorial position I get to pay it forward a little bit, whether it's helping someone get an ABN or noting a tendency for triple-barrelled adjective strings. I hope that I can let kindness guide all those interactions, and that's something I definitely learned from you: don't be a jerk, even if you feel you have to sometimes, just don't.
Sam asks Laurie:
Why did you decide to mentor me?
I had read your story ‘Hold on’ for issue eight of page seventeen. It’s hard to explain what happened next. I felt we were exploring the same emotional territory, if not necessarily in the same format. Thus, it was the first, and so far, only time I have felt an explicit kinship of theme with a younger writer. Loss is a double-edged sword: tough to work with as a human being, but soil for the honest, vulnerable writer. With you, it was not as if you were writing on a whim…you were writing because you had to.
What (if anything) did you learn from our mentoring relationship?
I learned the importance of authenticity and vulnerability in all that I write, and indeed, in the advice I pass on. While you read many of the texts I suggested and got in touch with the majority of the contacts, I learned more from our deeper conversations. At times, I found a blind spot in my mentoring framework, or was unable to help. When I found an issue outside of my skill set, I encouraged you to contact another writer that might be able to help. I am not the only person who helped you grow as a writer; that alone meant I learned to have more faith in the industry as a whole.
Is there anything that you've learned from your own mentors that you've tried to pass on to me?
John Harman was my first writing mentor. He taught me a lot about the importance of voice in creating a believable immersive narrative. John writes popular fiction, airport thrillers that are a breeze to read from beginning to end. As such, there is also much he can teach the contemporary literary fiction writer about plot, tension, and conflict.
When applicable, I tried to encourage you to ask suitably relevant questions about your own work. Why this story? Why now? Am I emotionally invested in the character? What about your story will be entertaining, informative or enlightening?
Other than John, the doyen of story for me was a guy called Sean Ennis, who taught me in the advanced fiction course at Zoetrope online. In all our interactions, Sean encouraged me to push a story past its natural limit, breaking into truly innovative territory in the process. His book, Chase Us, has just been published. I hope it's massive, just huge, and that he struggles as we all would, with being deservedly lauded, respected, and hassled for selfies.
Is there anything you decided not to teach me, to let me learn for myself?
Not as such. There were some things you had to experience before I could offer my insight; perhaps someone thought their time more important than yours, or indulged in questionable editorial practices. I could have warned you of these things going in, but it’s better to deal with such circumstances if and when they occur. I would hate to let a few bad apples colour your expectations of the industry.
I do think it's important to experience things first-hand. My perceptions of a person or institution originate from a number of experiences, good or bad. I would never want to lead you into an unfairly negative slant on a person or publisher particularly. Here, I think it’s better to offer thoughts when asked. That said I would not knowingly encourage you to work with those I’ve found negligent, mean-spirited or inconsiderate. I hope those networks I encouraged have, for the most part, been beneficial and welcoming. (Let me know if this is not the case!)
Have you been surprised by anything in our relationship - did you ever feel like you weren't sure what to tell me?
Sometimes I had to reflect on how best to frame a particular issue. Sometimes there’s no right or wrong answer. I took part in a panel on writing for students during my trip to Bulgaria. During the session, I said that’s it’s important to prioritise your writing at times and be inaccessible. Another writer disagreed. She said that if you do that, you might turn around one day with neither friends nor family.
The only thing that really surprised me was your willingness to get to the next level as a writer and industry professional. I know my methods work; I've seen them work in my own life. You never questioned my suggested work ethic, or the sacrifices required to get you where you wanted to go. That was an exquisite thing to see enacted; the adoption of a writer’s ethos that you then placed into your own context. You took turns where I hit walls. You hit walls from time to time, of course. It’s what we do as writers.
All in all, it was an inspiringly real, spiritual, and wholly beneficial experience for me. I still think about it regularly: how, as creative practitioners we must give back, if only to share the next idea, movement, or emotional awakening.
Laurie Steed is a short story writer from Perth, Western Australia. His work is forthcoming on BBC Radio 4 and has appeared in Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Age, Meanjin, Westerly, Island, The Sleepers Almanac and elsewhere. He is the author of You Belong Here, due to be published in 2015.
Sam van Zweden is the Online Editor for Writers Bloc. Her work has appeared in page seventeen, The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture and Killings and others. She blogs at Little Girl with a Big Pen. She is currently an Honours student at RMIT, writing creative nonfiction about food and memory.
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.