MFA Insider: What to Look for in a Writing Mentor

When my friend and mentor Vance Bourjaily died a few months ago, many of the tribute e-mails and phone calls that floated among his former students recounted the impromptu trumpet blasts he would unleash at the climax of his raucous dinner parties. Vance liked to laugh, to drink, to play music, and his generosity toward his students seemed boundless.

Vance was also a legend: Once hailed by Ernest Hemingway as “the most talented [living] writer under 50,” he published 10 outstanding novels and taught for more than two decades in Iowa City, mentoring literary-superstars-in-training such as Antonya Nelson, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Gail Godwin and John Irving. Vance had been friends and drinking buddies with the likes of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison and James Jones, and seemed to know virtually everyone who was anyone in the publishing world.

In short, when I encountered my mentor-to-be the first week of my Master of Fine Arts training at Louisiana State University, I was truly in awe. 

Yet all of these years later, what I learned from Vance can be boiled down to two nuggets of advice. These were offhand comments that did not seem so important at the time, but now I repeat them to my own students each semester, and I repeat them to myself again and again, when the mystery of the book stymies me.

And now I repeat them to you:

Once, sitting around in Vance’s office at the end of a long day, I confessed to him that I was stuck on the first chapter of my first novel. I just kept rewriting and rewriting it, worried that I couldn’t get it right.

Vance’s eyes twinkled a bit, and he smiled his crooked, warm smile. “Oh,” he said matter-of-factly, “I never write the first chapter of anything until I’m done with the whole book. The first chapter has to set up the entire novel, and how can you write that until you see where the book ends?”

What he said that day may or may not prove true for all writers, but it sure took the pressure off my first chapter, allowing me the confidence to move forward on my project, and that was a genuine gift.

The second bit of advice he shared with the whole class one Tuesday afternoon, when we were done workshopping that day’s stories and had moved on to the bull session. “It doesn’t ever get easier,” Vance said, explaining that each of his novels was as challenging as the first because “each book presents a new narrative puzzle, and you start off with no idea how that puzzle can be solved. I begin each book as uncertain of myself as I was when I began my first.”

I believe we were shocked and demoralized by that admission, naively thinking that we would learn how to structure a book and then the struggles would end. But now, 20 years later, it is a second important gift from my mentor, especially on those days that writing anything worthwhile seems a truly impossible task.

In creative writing programs, gossip often includes tales of prominent writers on faculty or in residence who are never available, or midlist writers who are too stressed about their own careers to help their lowly students, but stories like these are the exception, not the rule. Most writing teachers are generous to a fault. I’ve heard countless stories over the years from beginning writers (and highly successful writers) of just how important a particular workshop teacher has been in their writing trajectory.

So, if you’re a student of writing or if you’re hoping to become one, how do you find your mentor?

My first recommendation is for those currently considering applying to MFA programs or other writing workshops. Don’t just select a program based on the fame of the faculty listed on the website, or reject one because the names do not seem sufficiently luminous. If you find a program that interests you, use the Internet to reach out to students currently enrolled there and ask politely about how supportive the faculty is (and how supportive fellow students are, as well). If you write in a particular mode or genre—speculative fiction, formal poetry, young adult—ask if this sort of work gets a balanced workshop treatment. Choosing a program is a big decision, and doing your homework means more than just visiting the website.

My second and best piece of advice is for those entering a graduate writing program, or enrolling in any other sort of writing class or workshop: Let the mentor find you. Be serious, meet deadlines, bring your best work to workshop and exhibit curiosity and a hunger to become a better writer (not a hunger for shortcuts or favors). In my own teaching career, I’ve encountered a few students who were eager to show me that they already knew everything there was to know. So why, I would ask, are you here? On the other hand, I’ve encountered many wonderful students who were raring to go and willing to listen. Every writing teacher I know is thrilled when such a student arrives, and the mentoring relationship becomes a fait accompli.

(By the way, I said willing to listen, which doesn’t mean you have to follow all of the instructor’s advice or suggestions on a manuscript. Some advice is going to be enormously helpful, and other bits of advice aren’t going to suit you at all. Listen to everything, write it down, nod politely and then sort it all out when you’re home at your writing desk. Being open means hearing the suggestions, but then trusting your own instincts once you’ve weighed those suggestions fairly.)

Finally, where mentors are concerned, know what to expect. 

I’ve heard occasional stories of a novelist/teacher introducing a star student to a prominent New York agent, and eventually (in the story, at least) everyone is showered in money. But that’s not what you should expect from your mentor. Mentors—whether in a graduate writing program or elsewhere in your writing life—can show you how to closely line edit your work and can help you discover what questions to ask of a work-in-progress. Additionally, like Vance did for me, a good mentor might teach (by example perhaps) what it means to have a writing life, to struggle day in and day out with the inscrutable challenges of the sentence, the paragraph, the unmetered line.

By the way, my three years in graduate school afforded me numerous mentors, not just my dear friend Vance Bourjaily. Another professor taught me most of what I know about short-story structure and characterization; yet another introduced me to different aspects of the profession, taking me on as an assistant for her literary journal and even arranging for me to work a table so that I could attend my first Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference; and someone else showed me the importance of trusting those gut feelings that bubble up inexplicably from the unconscious mind.

Why was I so lucky, to have so many valuable guides in my graduate studies (and beyond)? I was open, I knew what to expect, and each time one of the faculty challenged me, I worked hard to rise to the occasion. That’s the basic recipe, no matter your goal or profession, and, if you ask me, that’s the best way to find a mentor.

Don’t have the time or money to enroll in an MFA program but still want the benefits? Consider:
The Portable MFA In Creative Writing

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