I’ve noticed that many blog posts begin with apologies for not posting for a while. This raises the question of who(m) a blogger thinks their communicating with. For most, I guess, it’s an imaginary audience, plus the blogger themselves, the blog acting as a sort of journal-cum-rumination-cum-selfrationalisation-cum-defence against dementia-cum-confessional-cum-hobby. So why the apology?
I’ve now retired as an academic. That doesn’t preclude the possibility of someone asking me to do something trading on my 40 years of research and teaching (no-one who’s close to me believes I’d turn down such a task if offered it) but I doubt I’ll ever enter another classroom nor publish another paper. We’ll see.
But one thing that does excite me – and always has, I guess – is being in a one-to-one tutoring situation with a keen learner. I’ve always responded well to those who are keen to learn (they can be quite rare!) especially as my own life has essentially been one long student-hood. Typically this happens is a tutorial or mentoring situation (the two are different, but might feel the same to the mentee, I suppose). Anyone actively seeking a mentor necessarily has a desire to learn, to improve, to develop in a way they’re not themselves quite able to perceive.
I’ve been a little surprised to find I’m quite good at this, and especially good at it with other writers. In the university context, I’ve helped colleagues develop professionally and achieve promotion (sometimes to my personal regret, as I’ve lost good staff and colleagues that way.) With writers, I’ve helped, I believe, five poets get published, and other writers have said things like “yours is the best feedback I’ve ever had” (from a published writer who had also achieved an MA Writing) even if my notes or conversation has not directly affected their chances of success. Similar things have come from working with prose writers – though my credentials here are less solid than in poetry, of course.
Several people have suggested I should set myself up as a professional mentor for writers. Certainly I’ve relevant experience, expertise and reasonable credentials and I haven’t yet spent time with a writer who hasn’t felt it’s been worthwhile for them (too many negatives in that sentence, but I guess it’s clear enough). I’ve excellent critical abilities (on everyone’s work except my own, it seems), decent teaching/support skills, reasonable communication and interpersonal skills (though I know some in my family who’d disagree with that!), lots of publications of different kinds, editorial and review experience – and so on.
But, if I did set myself up professionally, it’d probably feel exploitative. If a writer wants a mentor, then they believe they can be more successful, or more capable, than they currently are. But I’m a very minor poet and my own successes are pretty small (there are lots of them, but that’s not the same thing – that could be a measure of persistence as much as talent). Given my own level of achievement, isn’t there an implication that I could only help people achieve what I’ve managed – and no more (else why don’t I do it?) And those who need mentoring are, pretty much by definition, hopeful but less experienced, capable up to a point, but perhaps not capable enough, so wouldn’t I merely be helping them to be mediocre?
I’ve taught community writing workshops, for example, where the key desires of everyone sitting round the table are (a) to be told their work is wonderful (b) to get the approval of someone they trust/admire/believe in and (c) to be published. Not necessarily in that order. A mentor, then, for many writers could merely be gratifying those desires, without actually developing the writer in any real sense – and perhaps even, in extremis, fostering writerly ambitions in someone who has little hope of real development or success.
It’d be a risk, then, both for the mentee and the mentor. My question is: are there ways to protect against this, for both parties?
One idea I had was to suggest to one writer that I’d take no fee, merely a percentage of any royalty. She wouldn’t have that and, in fact, paid me a fee well in excess of what I felt I deserved (although, to be fair, I had provided a detailed critique of each of about 80 poems) and probably more than she’ll earn in royalties for the book that resulted. This puts all the financial risk on the mentor, but not the emotional or psychological risk.
Another might be to have an initial low-key, low cost exploratory period. I’m a strong believer in the notion that the mentee must choose a mentor who suits them – it’s a bit like counselling, in some ways, which can be “objective” and “non-directive” at one extreme, but is often most useful when there’s a decent personal relationship established at some level between the two parties. This means, therefore, that the mentee has to be given a decent chance to figure out if the mentor is a decent bet.
Another is that the mentor should insist on only working with people whose work she or he sees potential in. I have been in the position of mentoring someone whose work, in my view, really was never going to reach the quality they wanted to reach. I think I could put my finger on why, but I wasn’t able to figure out how to remedy it (if you like, you could call it a fundamental lack of key talents – but can they not be acquired?) I was able to help this person publish a little, where they’d not previously succeeded, so they’d moved some steps up the ladder they wanted to reach the top of, but I felt I would be misleading them if I suggested they’d actually be able to achieve their key ambitions.
Yet, if you tell someone that (and no matter how careful or provisional you are in saying it) there can be only two possible outcomes. Perhaps they believe you, and so their ambitions are wrecked. If I ever truly believed that I wasn’t ever going to succeed as a writer (I say such negative things as temporary self-doubt, but usually get through it) I’d be almost as heart-broken as if I’d lost the love of my life. Truly.
Or perhaps they don’t believe you. In which case, they’re either deluded, doomed to a career of failure, misery and rejection; or you are, in which case, what price your vaunted critical talents now? (And, either way, the relationship between mentor and mentee is irrevocably broken).
I think there’ll be more on this topic in a later post. But your guess is as good as mine about when that might be…