This is a piece by Lauren Sherritt on the importance of professional creative mentoring programs.
During the first few years of my writing career, I’ve been lucky to have been chosen to participate in a number of mentoring programs that have helped me grow both professionally and personally. Call me a mentorship junkie; I’m addicted to this unique brand of learning opportunity.
I can say without any doubt that the mentorship programs I’ve completed have been some of the most worthwhile professional development opportunities of my career. Through them I’ve been introduced to everyone from my emerging artist peers to Artistic Directors of theatre companies; been given time to develop work that has gone on to be produced and published; and come to the realisation that my work is good enough to warrant working on it, but also that I’ve got a lot of learning to continue to do. If there is one thing I’d encourage any emerging writer to do, and organisations and companies to keep on offering, it’s mentorships.
So what is a mentorship exactly, and why am I so adamant about that they’re the career-making brilliance you’ve been looking for?
A mentorship is a professional relationship between an artist and a more experienced professional in their field (or an adjacent field) who can pass on knowledge, skills and networks.
The mentorships I’ve completed have all been part of organised programs, including The Australian Theatre For Young People’s Fresh Ink National Mentoring Program for playwrights, which I completed in 2015 under dramaturg Saffron Benner, and Playlab’s Incubator program, which I’m currently working through with Richard Jordan and a team of five other emerging writers. Mentorships can also be facilitated by the mentor and mentee themselves, with the two artists deciding on the structure required for their mentoring relationship.
While having friends and making connections in your industry is fantastic, think of a mentor as a kind of supercharged professional relationship that combines friend, teacher, critic, taskmaster and cheerleader into one. They will review your work, set you tasks and deadlines and point you in the direction of further learning opportunities. A mentor will usually be operating at a more advanced professional level to you, so they will be familiar with the road you’re trekking down and will know the industry opportunities and pitfalls you should look out for on your way. They may also be able to connect or recommend you to other professionals. Most importantly of all, a mentor will be invested in your success.
My mentors have all had different ways of progressing my practice. One regularly emails when they see an opportunity I should apply for, others have built into our mentoring program nights at the theatre, taking in new Australian work. All have set readings of plays new and old, and theory on theatre, writing, directing, and the state of our country and its culture. Outside of our dedicated programs, I’ve been able to call on my mentors for letters of support when writing grant or program applications and ask for their advice when I need to engage other professionals to work with me on a new project.
It’s not all fun and games, readings and chats, though. A mentor will hold you accountable to the goals and outcomes you’ve set for yourself, or the program you’re completing has set for you both.
Even if they’re being paid, a mentor will usually be donating a large chunk of time, effort and expertise to the cause that is your career and will expect that you put in just as much in return, if not more. They will usually require you to show them some work at intervals throughout the mentorship, expecting to see your project’s progress and that you’re learning from your time together.
One of the greatest benefits I’ve found in completing my mentorships has been the required meetings with my mentor, usually fortnightly or monthly. The regular deadlines of “check-in” meetings as well as the formal deadlines for handing over work have given my writing practice a structure and consistency which I wouldn’t have held myself to without any external pressures. With all the readings and “assignments” it’s kind of like being back at university, only there’s no fail grade to avoid and no horrific compulsory classes like “How to turn on a computer 101”.
A mentor will provide the kind of feedback that your mum/best friend/partner/cat can’t. Sure, they’ll tell you what you’re doing well. But in meeting their purpose of helping you become a better artist, they’ll also provide honest, constructive criticism. They’ll tell you where they see opportunity for your improvement, call you out on work that is obviously not your best and prod you towards making difficult decisions or trying something new.
While showing your work to someone else can be scary, and committing yourself to regularly showing your work to someone who is already successful at what you want to do might seem downright terrifying, opening your practice up to constructive advice is the best way to take your work to the next level.
Having the chance to work on my projects with an artist I admire is a golden opportunity I make sure I don’t take lightly. While I get nervous each time, I know that I’d kick myself in the future for not taking the opportunity to share my work when I had someone who could then work with me to make it even better.
My mentors have also been great sources of knowledge when it comes to discussions about creating a sustainable practice, how to find inspiration and not burn out. Mentors are usually people who have “made it”, so to speak, who are practicing professionally and have found enough balance in their work that they feel comfortable sharing their knowledge with others on the way up. While none of my mentors have ever told me it would be easy, they’ve all encouraged me to continue striving towards my creative goals.
Completing my mentorships has made me simultaneously more confident and humble as an artist. I’ve learnt the value of hard work and that learning is a career-long endeavour. I’m able to see the possible shape of my future career and feel that I have support as I strike out towards goals both short and long term. For writers at the beginning of their practice, writers who are feeling stuck, or writers struggling with self-motivation or doubt, I think that mentorships are worth their weight in gold, or at least their weight in really nice, easy-grip pens with superb ink-flow which, let's face it, are damn expensive.
There are a number of annual writing mentorship programs run for writers in all different fields. Below I’ve listed a few upcoming opportunities, and you can keep an eye on The Writers Bloc’s monthly opportunities wrap for more.
• Australian Writers Mentoring Program (http://writermentors.com/fees-application-process/)
• ASA’s Emerging Writers’ and Illustrators’ Mentorships (https://www.asauthors.org/emerging-writers-and-illustrators-mentorships)
• The Affirm Press Mentorship Award (http://www.australianpoetry.org/competitions/the-affirm-press-mentorship-award/)
• The Oodgeroo Noonuccal Indigenous Poetry Prize (http://www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com/site/poetry-awards/)
• Australian Poetry’s mentoring services (http://www.australianpoetry.org/mentoring/)
• The Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers (http://www.expressmedia.org.au/scribe/)
• Most state based writers centres offer mentorship programs as part of their core services
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Lauren Sherritt is a Brisbane based freelancer, playwright and director. Her writing has been published on Junkee, The Cusp, The Financial Diet and Australian Stage, and produced at Anywhere Theatre Festival and Short + Sweet Festival.