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November 24, 2014

On Mentors

Smears-of-Jam-Lights-of-Jelly_MP_071_RGB-300x240Recent news had me thinking about mentors, how we imagine that success comes from kneeling at the feet of wise professorial men, or at least job opportunities from a date with a charismatic celebrity. What about women mentors though, I wondered? I started asking other writers about their own women mentors, and it turned out that these kind of relationships are not very common. For a few reasons, I think.

First, that there are fewer women in positions of power to serve as mentors. Second, that women are often already stretched with other caring commitments. Third, that perhaps we all know that mentorships will never make or break a writer’s career—her work and talent matter, and probably best to focus on that. And finally, because of the realities of women’s lives (dearth of time, power, money, etc), mentorships have taken on less traditional structures, are often virtual, and perhaps aren’t always recognizable for what they are.

Certainly, I’ve never knelt at the feet of the women who’ve served as mentors to me, some of whom I’ve only met in person once or twice. I think of Sheree Fitch, who never ceases to champion other women writers’ work, a vocal supporter of my blog and my book for so many years; Michele Landsberg, whom I encountered in the comments of my blog and we bonded over mutual admiration for Joan Bodger, who has been so supportive of my work; Rona Maynard, who has been a huge influence as I’ve put the pieces of my career together over the last decade and tried to take it all more seriously; Marita Dachsel, who helped me navigate my early days as a mother/writer; Tabatha Southey, who rocks it every week in the Saturday Globe and exists to make us all aspire to be smarter (and funnier); and my friend, Anakana Schofield, who sends me emails that say (and I’m paraphrasing), “Stop talking about mentors already, and just write your fecking book.”

Oh, the women I have in my corner. They’re everything. Not least of all my friends, plus contacts in The Toronto Women Writers Salon, and CWILA. This is all turning into a protracted version of my Linked In profile, which is beside the point, which is to say that supportive women are everywhere. You only have to look, and also to celebrate, and be inspired too to serve a similar role for younger women whose work you admire.

*****

I asked some other women to tell me about their own mentors, and am pleased to be able to share their responses. 

**

In the mid-eighties, I set up a meeting with Karen Mulhallen, hoping to volunteer for Descant magazine. I knew nothing about anything. About an hour later, I left her house as managing editor.  Karen became a mentor, an ally and a dear friend, doling out challenges in a way that seemed offhand but was somehow impossible to refuse. Over the years she has continued to put me in the way of writing and editing opportunities I would never have tackled had it not been for her confidence in me—or her willingness to take a leap of faith. I suspect I’m not alone in saying this about Karen. She is a truly generous person, in both life and art.

Maria Meindl

**

When the phone rang at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon four years ago, I never imagined it would be my Can-Hist hero – and a future mentor. But on the other end of the line, there was the crisp English accent of renowned biographer and historian Charlotte Gray, congratulating me on my successful Skype-in to the fundraising gala in Toronto. I had fan-girled her in my live interview, talking about how I had slid my book next to hers on the alumni bookshelf and was trying to soak in the genius left behind by her, Pierre Berton, and others. Since then, we have crossed paths in person only twice, but she has written me letters of recommendation, we have tweeted about her “academic ninja-ness” on Canada Reads, and she even made me her junior “running mate” in a literary award competition. Those votes of confidence have spurred me on through the inevitable crises of confidence and the exhaustion of juggling a small child and a writing career. I’m so glad I picked up that phone.

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail
**
My writing mentor is Ania Szado, author of Studio Saint-Ex and Beginning of Was. For the past two years Ania has been coaching me on writing a book called The Relationship Deal that helps couples hash out their expectations in the messy world of love. From the outset Ania believed in me, and was both my fiercest advocate as well as my toughest critic. She insisted from the get-go that I call myself a writer even though that felt fraudulent—after all I wasn’t a published author, a journalist, or a copyeditor.  Yet, she insisted I attach the writer label firmly to my psyche and start writing (and thinking) like one. Ania questions everything I write, absolutely everything. She doesn’t take anything on the page at face value. She finds the person hiding behind the black and white, and guides her firmly and confidently to the forefront. Under her tutelage I have found “me” underneath many layers of self-deprecation. I know myself better now—writing is knowing—and most importantly like what I have found.
Sue Nador
**
When I took my first creative writing class in Sarah Selecky’s dining room, I thought: Look at this woman giving out all her secrets! She’s handing out advice like hors d’oeuvres. But I soon learned that Sarah was (is) a generous teacher and a gifted writer, and that all the knowledge from the best mentors in the world won’t make you a better writer unless you show up and do the work yourself.

So I took her advice.

Eventually I got to study with Sarah’s mentor, Zsuzsi Gartner and the experience was challenging and enlightening and transformative.

Later, I returned to Sarah and thanks to her thoughtful direction, I was given the opportunity to work under the insightful and practical guidance of Annabel Lyon.

All my mentors have had helped shape me as a writer through developing style, building confidence, and trusting my voice. I am appreciative, grateful, and humbled and I continue to work under their influence.

This year, I am honoured to be a TA for Sarah’s online e-course where I have the opportunity to give back. And you bet I am giving away all the secrets I know, which, of course, are not secrets at all.

Lana Pesch

*****

I have been fortunate to have several great teachers—Priscila Uppal and Richard Teleky certainly helped chart my present course. But the woman I would call my mentor, who supported me beyond any professional obligation, is Susan Swan. She was my fiction professor at York, and subsequently supervised a directed reading course that allowed me to start my memoir. I dropped my first draft on her doorstep in four boxes: 776 pages. She sent emails by turns encouraging and devastating (I am loving this; it’s not going anywhere), and was unoffended by my request not to send any more before reading the whole thing. She did, and then invited me over. I always loved being at her home: it signified to me that writing was not incommensurate with a good and beautiful life. Those hours of discussion helped me to believe I had written something  worth taking seriously. She gave the book to her daughter, the agent Samantha Haywood, whose representation has been an incredible gift. After its publication, Susan mentioned my book whenever there was opportunity—a deep kindness that helped me feel as though I was part of a literary community.

-Samantha Bernstein

*****

Alas, I’ve not yet met American writer Susan Griffin face to face, but voice sounds and resounds inside me whenever I recall her our conversations. A year ago she was my editor but years before her book Woman and Nature, a poetic exploration of Western culture’s ideas of gender and nature, altered forever how I see the world and gave me language and the courage to dare to honour my own perceptions about woman as creators.

Susan became my editor at a time when I was in trouble with my novel, The Pig and the Soprano, the (true) story of a privileged Victorian woman who dared ambition on the Paris stage and ended her days as an impoverished recluse living with her pet pig. Susan worked as a midwife, giving me the sense that I had within me everything I needed to tell the story as it needed to be told and inspiring me to let the creative process unfold. Her written comments were insightful and catalytic and our phone conversations opened imaginative doors that set my spirits soaring. I’m forever grateful.

-Sandra Campbell

*****

I signed up for Colleague Circle for the free dinners. On the last Thursday of every month, eight of us—the six new humanities hires and two facilitators—gathered at the faculty club at 5:30 pm for insipid meals that consisted of a meat dish, a starch and an obligatory overcooked vegetable, followed by a creamy dessert. We ate, drank wine, debriefed about our first-year-faculty-member woes, compared grant notes, politely appreciated everything the University of Missouri offered us, and went our separate ways. I gravitated toward Maureen Stanton for her self-deprecating humor and her academic discipline: creative nonfiction writing. She had made a career for herself writing precisely the kind of prose I loved to read and found myself writing, yet not showing anybody—slices of life, creatively rendered. I hadn’t realized there was an institutionally accepted term for this. Timidly, I asked Maureen if she might share her course syllabus with me or provide me with a list of creative nonfiction classics. She responded with a generous reading list that I immediately began to work my way through with disturbing enthusiasm. Here I was at the university of Missouri, an assistant professor of Russian literature, and all I wanted to do was read literary nonfiction and acquaint myself with this new, yet strangely familiar genre. Maureen and I met for coffee and she shook her head as I regaled her with family story after story. “Why aren’t you writing this down?” she demanded to know. And that might have been the beginning. We later formed a writing group—her comments, the perfect combination of encouragement, awe, and incisive criticism—and she wrote letters of recommendation for me when I applied to artist colonies. “You’re a writer,” she told me after reading a short essay of mine, years before I ever dared to use that word to describe myself. I devoured all of her essays and read them closely, pencil in hand, as perfect lessons in craft. Her book, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, is a riveting peek into the world of antiques and flea markets. In the end, we both left the University of Missouri (not at all on account of the awful Colleague Circle meals); she ended up teaching in Massachusetts, and I moved back to Toronto. Though I haven’t seen Maureen in eight years, she’s the first person I alert when I have a new publication out in the world.

-Julia Zarankin

*****

It’s damn difficult to name just one mentor. I’ve been so lucky: even in the deep bullshit of high school, there was Bev Hiller, my art teacher. She didn’t tell me that things were going to get better, she showed me how they could be. She treated us like adults and for that hour, we were. That classroom was an oasis.

Much later, after I’d already had two children and could only see the size of the canyon between me and the novel I wanted to write, I met Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. I was writing journalism; it was as close as I could get to where I wanted to be. I was starting to think it was too late to start, that I’d never get there, that I’d blown my chance. But she had small children too, and she was doing it. She was fierce and committed and her generosity knew no bounds. She let me trail after her like a lost duckling at literary events. She kept nudging me by example and by suggestion. She has read almost everything I’ve written since then. My debut novel exists in no small part because she’s in my world. Merci beaucoup, Kathryn.

-Christine Fischer Guy

*****

My mentors are peers, women whose intelligence and generosity have encouraged me to work harder, write better, sometimes to write at all. Tending towards both vanity and insecurity, I depend on the bracing opinions of friends who won’t indulge either trait. Karen Connelly, Ann Shin, Camilla Gibb and Donna Bailey Nurse have all sustained me with their support and encouragement, and by their example. There are other mentors I’ve met only on the page who’ve sustained me in a more private way. (And I confess, some of them are men.).

-Diana Fitzgerald-Bryden

4 thoughts on “On Mentors”

  1. I was stupid busy that weekend, so I never wrote this out for you. My mentor is Linda Goyette, a journalist and non-fiction writer. She set me up with an ambitious three year project and guided me through. She believes in me while pushing me to become better. Her interest in women, First Nations issues, and making the world a better place have encouraged me to accept these as my own values too.

    Other mentors who have been so kind with their time and who have offered kind words and wisdom to me include Lauren B Davis (who I have never met) and Marina Endicott, who I know is in my corner.

    I am also grateful to one meeting I had with Saeko Usukawa, the editor of Wayson Choy’s “The Jade Peony”. Saeko really shaped that. She took time of her work day to show me how to write a book proposal and to show me examples of book proposals that worked. I was 27 years old, and hadn’t even published a book yet, but she believed in me. I only met Saeko twice, but I cried when I found out she had died. I never forgot her generosity, or her belief in me. In many ways, it is the belief and faith of more seasoned writers that sustains me the most.

    (And yes, he’s a man, but sometimes as I sit down to write my novel-in-progress and experience a moment of fear, anxiety and lack of confidence, I hear Lawrence Hill’s calm voice say, “You have all the tools you need to write this book.”

  2. I should have edited my above post. I can see about three typos/grammar mistakes/edits.

    UGH.

  3. m says:

    Oh, Kerry! To be named one of your mentors left me speechless. I kept returning to this post, not sure how to express gratitude and respect.

    I’ve had a hard time thinking about mentors. I’ve never been good at following through on relationships with people who could be mentors. I feel like I don’t want to bother them/they’re too important to waste their time on me/what have I to offer them? My mentors have been those whom I consider peers: Jennica Harper, Laisha Rosnau, Carrie Snyder, you. Though now that I’m writing this, I realize that Marina Endicott and Caroline Adderson have both been mentors to me, though they may not realize it.

    I guess this is to say that I don’t have the traditional “at the knee” mentor relationship. I’d really like one though.

    1. Kerry says:

      Peers really are so wonderful, aren’t they. It’s a relationship that’s so much more real than traditional mentorships. I think that many of my peers are my mentors too. xo

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