Thanks to the Mentors

This morning I read a very moving post by S. Jae-Jones about writing/creative mentors that got me thinking about the important people who have mentored me. I write this with some trepidation after Amanda Palmer’s somewhat crushing recent encounter with a former mentor who recently went on to trash her in the comments of her TED talk. Things change, people change, and you can’t always trust that the respect and gratitude felt as a mentee is returned by the poor soul that put up with your artistic flounderings.

And boy, was I floundering when these fine people put up with me. (Often, I feel like I am still floundering now, even as I am slowly becoming the mentor to other writers!)

My very first writing mentor was David Blixt. I was only 11 or 12 years old at the time, and boy was I awkward. At writing. At everything. At talking with adults. But my mother signed me up for a community writing class for children, and I must have taken that class, 2-3 times a year, for about four years. When I first signed up for David’s class, I didn’t know fiction meant you were allowed to make up stories. I think I spent four or five weeks doing Writing Down the Bones exercises that just involved “I don’t know anything about this”.

Finally, it clicked, though. And life has never been the same since.

David introduced me to Jonathan Carroll stories, quoting from memory the beginning of Sleeping In Flame about regret, a story opening that will always be in my top three story openings. (The other two are the beginning to Conversations in Sicily and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler… but more on that latter one in a bit!) It was my first introduction to “urban fantasy”– the idea that something could be set in the real world, and yet be fantastical as well was entirely new to me, and I plowed through all of Carroll’s stories in a couple of months, and never really recovered.

He also put up with the worst of my surrealist/dadaist middle-school nonsense as I wrote stories about drunk pineapples, and created a 30+ page “never ending sentence” full of non sequitur run-ons. These things were not his fault. What was his fault was his encouragement to keep going, and his persistence in getting me “butt on chair” to do the writing, when, like most 14-year-olds, I was bouncing all over the room and wanting to chat up a storm instead.

David and I parted ways when I went to high school, but I found him again today on twitter. I also found my second mentor on twitter, the fabulous Dean Bakopoulos. Dean signed up to teach a class on writing at my high school, and looking to replace the hole of no longer having David’s class, I quickly enrolled.

(It’s not particularly relevant to this story, but it was in Dean’s class where I fell in love with my husband. Dean brought out the best in both of us as writers, and while I will already admit that I had a crush, it was really the stories my husband wrote in that class that turned things serious!)

Dean introduced me to Italo Calvino, and particularly to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. He took the undirected surrealism I had brought with me from middle school and channeled it into flash fiction pieces that had punch and structure. We read Chuck Rosenthal‘s “The Nicest Kid in the Universe” and debated the role of the narrator’s mother at the end of the piece.

Most importantly, Dean got me asking the question “What’s at stake?” A refrain that I heard for years afterwards, in every writing class I ever took, Dean’s introduction to the idea helped me turn odd into meaningful, and gave me the needed philosophy to understand and analyze any stories I ran across.

Dean, I’m sorry that every time you said the phrase “what’s at stake” I wanted to turn it into a joke about what was “in the steak”. I was 15. I didn’t mean it.

He also had us read Billy Aronson‘s play Little Red Riding Hood. Wickedly funny stuff. It instilled in me a love of word-play that has gone right into my poetry, and has never left me alone ever since. Eyelid melon Friday, if I do say so myself.

There have been others, too, of course. Geeta Kothari taught me most of what I know about revision. Everything I don’t know about revision isn’t her fault– she tried, she really did. And Jeffrey Steiger taught me something indescribable about living the written word– the narrative difference that is equivalent to painting from a photograph versus painting from life.

I wish I had had more time to work with Shelley Jackson while I was living in New York. She was the “mentor that got away”– I was too shy, too intimidated by her talent to request more of her attention. I wish I had had the nerve. What I did learn from her sticks with me in every story I write. She made ideas exciting again, at a time when I was otherwise pretty burned out.

So thank you to the mentors, the giants I’ve stood on. I’m not sure what there is to see yet, but it’s thanks to you that I have a view.


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