|October woods, 2011, Quaker Point, West Bath, Maine|
Mentors. More specifically, those people who see a glimmer in you that you hope and wish someone would identify and validate. Something inside that you dearly want to come to light, that you think is true about you, that constitutes what could be the best part of you. I've always been a writer. But Lordy it's lonely on that page. And when I was first starting out, the fact that I wrote was secondary to day-to-day survival. Writing? Really? How about getting through the day intact - creeping past, dodging through, and swerving from missiles shot from the slings and arrows of mundane chores, baffling homework, and the sometimes harsh reality of my childhood. How do any of us survive? More specifically, how does something as tender as an imagination survive? Why can I still make up people, give them life, make them real on the page - how did I save that within myself? I did some of it, myself, in the best ways I knew how. I listened to music. I put the speakers next to my head and snuggled down to listen to Tommy by the Who. (And by the way, I still have A plus hearing...go figure...). I embraced dance. I remember dancing alone in the living room of my house long after everyone had gone to bed. I wandered through the woods with our Irish Setters and made up someone else's life.
And I had wonderful childhood friends that loved to make up stories. We acted out our stories, and we wrote them down and drew pictures of what they looked like. We fed each other's sparks, and we still do that. And there were adults, specifically one aunt that kept me from going crazy when I was in my early teens. I babysat my younger cousins, and when she came home, we'd sit at the kitchen table and I would talk to her late into the night. I don't even remember what we talked about, but her warm brown eyes kept me on the planet and, unconsciously, on some sort of creative path that I had yet to find.
I remember two anti-mentors (because oddly enough, sometimes criticism is the best kind of mentoring) who told me that I had copied assignments when I knew I hadn't. That was frustrating, and unfair, but I also recognized that I was good enough to warrant notice. Another anti-mentor, a French professor who was overly harsh with me, because she knew I was capable of so much more. I learned French that year, whether I wanted to, or not. Still another taught me that I needed to take care of myself, to learn to foster relationships with people who filled me up, not drained me or made me feel small. I'm grateful to her, and I wish her well.
A Creative Writing class I took was taught by a gentle writer/teacher who took me aside and said, "This story is almost good enough to be published." That still echoes, after 30 years. Another creative writing class. A different teacher. My stories were praised to the skies by other students, which was great. But the teacher said, "What if you went deeper?" Again, something that has stuck with me as a writer, something someone thought I was capable of doing. Inner fodder to chew over (I live amongst cattle now after all. Fodder is a word that does crop up, as does 'crop'). Another mentor, a quiet, intense therapist who, at the end of our time together, left me with the word "Kindness." And how right she was. It takes copious amounts of energy to stay angry. Much more energy than it does to let things go. Letting things go lets so much more in.
Finally, I met thirty-two mentors in my MFA program. It was such a revelation to me to sit in the same room with others who made up stories, who populated pages with characters that sprang from somewhere that had been saved, nurtured, and realized within themselves, as well. How did we all get to that day, that place, listening breathlessly to the program director as she explained what would be happening in the following weeks? Book groups, writing groups, classes, encouragement from someone(s) we trusted. Each of us has a story, the one that we tell to ourselves, the one that we share with our family and the one that we keep about our families to ourselves, and the stories that we share with the world. We find each other, sniff each other out, search for our tribes, and keep in touch. We seek out places that feed our souls and visit them again and again. We read, we listen, we observe and absorb.
In the end, belief in oneself is the ultimate mentor. But to believe in oneself, one has to somehow be acknowledged by someone else - no matter if it's one word, a look, the work of someone else admired, or a tiny crumb of a gruff but tender whisper that says, "Yes, you are a writer. Now, write, for chrissake ."