Welcome to the first in a new series of posts, titled Someone Who Knows. This series is a skill-share, where we hear from people who are experts, or who have had a unique experience in the writing world. We hope these posts help inspire, direct and spark new interests.
If you’re someone who knows and you’re keen to share, we’d love you to get in touch with our Online Editor Sam at email@example.com/wpblog
Today we hear from Lee Kofman, a Melbourne-based writer who has experience as both a mentor and a mentee.
Why mentors can be good for you (or not)
‘Never write from a man’s perspective,’ a well-respected writer told me while sipping on his glass of red. We were sitting in an intimate bar in Melbourne’s inner city, however this wasn’t a date. The writer was my first mentor since I moved to Australia, and the misleading setting was his choice of meeting-place for our sessions. I hadn’t shown him anything written from a male perspective, but I was so intimidated by the presence of a man whose books I admired that I didn’t enquire where this advice was coming from. Moreover, if he had bothered taking some interest in me, he’d have known that I had already had three books published, two of which included stories told by men. I was insecure following a lengthy writer’s block I was then experiencing, so I said nothing, merely fidgeting with my beer and almost spilling it on my mentor’s somewhat grubby shorts.
Perhaps to divert me from such potentially harmful activities, my mentor imparted more advice: ‘I read your work, but see… You’re too young to be writing a memoir.’ Once again I was puzzled – we never discussed my age (I was in my early thirties then). I considered enquiring what was the right age to be eligible as a memoirist, but once again held my tongue.
The main thing I learned from that mentoring relationship (which lasted three meetings, after which I awkwardly withdrew) wasn’t about ‘correct’ gender or genre choices, but that choosing a mentor doesn’t equal choosing a writer who I love reading. Firstly, my adoration got in the way of a genuine dialogue between us. Secondly, some mentors – as I unfortunately discovered – have no capacity for a dialogue full stop. However, mentors are not publishers or editors, whose job is usually to judge the finished work on its merits. Mentors work with works-in-progress. As such, it is their duty to be curious about the writers they work with. A mentor’s primary role is to help writers to clarify their own vision of their work, deepen it and stick to it through the hurricanes of self-doubt. They are a hybrid teacher, editor and therapist.
Writers, particularly when developing a new book, can be remarkably vulnerable creatures, and mentors can hold enormous power over them. I stopped writing for a while after that mentoring fiasco (although I can’t place all the blame on that mentor, since I began that relationship feeling despondent). I am happy to report though that another mentor – Peter Bishop, the former director of Varuna – came to my rescue soon after. Peter was the first person to demonstrate to me what a huge contribution mentors can make simply by believing in a writer. I mean genuinely believing, and making an intelligent, informed case for their belief.
When Peter read the messy and incomplete draft of the memoir, he at first said only three words: ‘This is strange.’ I stared at him in horror. I knew Peter’s tremendous reputation in the literary world and had absolutely no idea what he meant. Strange…? For a moment I considered calling it quits, dropping the stupid idea altogether. ‘This is what I want from a book,’ Peter continued, ‘that it will be strange – show me something I haven’t seen before.’
I remember the surge of energy I felt then, the kind of energy I felt before I got blocked. And that surge didn’t subside when Peter gently proceeded to discuss all that my book still needed (meaning, lacked). Once I knew that Peter saw the potential in what I was doing, and pinpointed the themes intrinsic to my desire to write this memoir (the allure of risk, the desire to live multiple lives), I trusted his feedback. And unlike his predecessor, Peter didn’t impart knowledge from a throne. Rather, he conversed with me, helping me to clarify what I was trying to say. With his wise guidance and encouragement, and after years of hard work, I finished The Dangerous Bride.
In completing this book, I am also indebted to another mentor, the legendary Judith Lukin-Amundsen who guided me in the later stages of the manuscript. Judith saw the big picture of my work clearer than I did and, like Peter, she delivered her insights while making me feel understood. She picked up on two flaws in my book: my character had the terrible tendency to occasionally sound smug, even preachy, and there was an imbalance between research and narrative. Both were major issues and if I hadn’t felt that Judith believed in the book, fixing them might have been overwhelming. Judith’s confidence in my story and my ability to tell it gave me the strength to persevere with revision.
Speaking of perseverance, Judith was also instrumental in helping me in another way mentors can help writers – she made me feel accountable. I tend to write slowly, and by the time I began working with Judith I was already almost five years into the book and still a third of a book short of completion. If I continued at this pace, I’d need two more years to finish the manuscript. But Judith insisted – I was to submit the complete draft to her in four months. There was no way I could do this, I said.
Then I finished the book. In four months. I don’t know how, but setting tough deadlines often works. Now that I myself mentor other writers, I see this in my relationships with them too, that setting timelines, and sometimes homework tasks, can be useful to boost motivation and productivity. Even most self-directed writers can grow intimidated by that blessing and curse of the writing ‘business’ – the freedom of it.
Just like peer feedback, I don’t think a mentoring relationship is necessary to produce great work. But just like good peer feedback, having the right mentor can deepen and speed up the writing process, make it more bearable, or even prevent the writer from giving up on a book. However, having a wrong mentor can cost you a book and/or your sanity.
My suggestion is, don’t rush into marrying your mentor – date her first, and after a meeting or two, consider whether you want to see her again. Here is a checklist you may want to use during this reevaluation:
- Are your conversations unfolding as a dialogue?
- Do you feel your work is understood?
- Does your mentor add a fresh perspective to what you’re doing?
- Do you feel your mentor believes in what you’re doing?
- Do you feel your mentor is honest with you?
- Is the criticism specific enough?
- Do you feel that you own your work and have the space to disagree with your mentor?
- Do you feel inspired, or at least clearer on what to do, following your contact with the mentor?
If the answer to even one of these questions is ‘no’, I suggest you change your status back to ‘single’. To find your next – or first – ‘date’ you may want to approach your local writers’ centre, the Australian Association of Authors and/or Varuna the Writers’ House. All these organisations usually advertise a range of mentors to choose from on their websites. Additionally, it’s not a bad idea to ask other writers about mentors they may know or their own experiences of having been mentored. Good luck!
Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books (in Hebrew). Her short works in English have been widely published in Australia, the UK, Scotland, Canada and the US, including Best Australian Stories and Best Australian Essays. Her first book in English, the memoir The Dangerous Bride is due to appear in October 2014 through MUP. Lee has been mentoring writers and teaching writing classes for over ten years. She also blogs monthly about the writing process for Writers Victoria. More information at www.leekofman.com.au