Ottawa
4 min

The perpetual mentee

When I first started writing and publishing fiction eight years ago, I looked for mentors to show me the way. I soon made a thrilling discovery: if you write to your favourite authors, and if you’re nice enough and don’t ask for too much, they might write back. I was amazed by this glitch in the reader-writer continuum: the walls between us were fake. 

I was the prince of the fan faux pas. I remember writing to an American author I liked, and he kindly dispensed free advice on the craft. “Give one character a bag of money, the other a gun, and see what happens.” I promptly ruined our relationship by giving him unsolicited feedback on his latest short story collection, writing with eerie precision, “I wasn’t moved by the last 33 percent of your book as much as the first 66.” What a brat I was! I never heard from him again. Eight years isn’t too late for an apology letter, is it?

This flub spurred me to become a better mentee. I feel ridiculously lucky that so many writers have given me their time and expertise over the years, and continue to do so. They’ve taught me so much about writing, publishing and the creative process. They’ve slogged through unnecessarily messy drafts, suggested books to read, given me encouragement when my prospects appeared bleak, written blurbs and letters of reference, put me in touch with other writers and dared me to take risks. Just talking to them is inspirational.  

Un gros merci! I could never thank my mentors adequately. Gushing about their books without cease might be a good start.

After a few years, I started getting letters from other writers, with requests for guidance that weren’t always overt. “Well, I’m kind of working on a story and not sure what to do with it.” I offered my time. I analyzed their manuscripts, invited them to literary events, helped them write hooky query letters and explained that the toughest part of editing is turning off iTunes. I counselled them on building a writing process while simultaneously building my own.

I was far from being a perfect mentor. I was at turns harsh, distrustful of their instincts, focused on the wrong things and even, well, overly enthusiastic! But hey, I was learning. Teachers and coaches should know more than their students, but that’s only part of the job. They have to be good at asking provocative questions to give the writer’s working methods a gentle shakedown, to keep the fire stoked. I’ve worked with mentees who have more experience than I do. In a good pairing, the learning is equal. 

Why do mentors do it? It can be for the pleasure of giving guidance that was given to them. Because they recognize a version of themselves in a younger — or older —  writer. They fall in love with the writing and can’t imagine not getting involved. Being in the inspiration business gets them out of bed. 

It can be how they make a living.

Often, they must say, “No.” The writing might be outside their domain. They receive more requests than they can fulfill. They’re racing to meet a manuscript deadline while on an international book tour, which is only a break from running a blog, which in turn is a break from a full-time job and taking care of the kids. Because the potential mentee might want too much without paying for it.

Nowadays, I charge for mentoring. It’s weird to attach a dollar amount to services I once gave for free, but Mama’s gotta pay for her Rice Krispies.

In 2010, I had the privilege of being a mentor in the Quebec Writers’ Federation mentorship program, the only such English-language program in the province.

That’s how I met Big Red. I call him that because he’s twice my size with hair the colour of Rickard’s beer. Handsome chap. I was thunderstruck by the first sentence of his I ever read, the first line of the novel he worked on during our mentorship. “This is the car I died in.” Curious, I asked him to show me a picture of the car, and he produced an image of a lemon-yellow 1968 Mustang. Stunner. When I was a kid, a 1966 model of the same car had put me in the hospital.

I knew it was going to be a wild ride with Big Red.

We embarked on a food-based mentorship. For four months, we met in a slew of Montreal’s most decadent restaurants, gorged ourselves silly and had fiery discussions about writing, editing and publishing. I made a new friend and learned where to get the meanest udon noodles in town. Big Red finished his novel. 

As I wiped wasabi tears from my eyes, it hit me hard: mentoring makes me so damn happy.

I wasn’t always nice to him. I often excused myself to the bathroom when our server brought the bill, and I pool-sharked him one night by downplaying my skills at sinking the eight ball (which, I must say, aren’t too shabby). I’m sure I also gave him a few bum steers. I apologized for everything.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I don’t listen to you anyways.”

Big Red recently told me that publishers have been asking to read his manuscript.

Now I just need to apply my own advice, and everyone will be happy.

What’s my point? Eat well. Have fun. Over the course of our lives, we will need many teachers. Go find your mentor. I just banged out a letter asking for help. Find your mentee. Someone needs to talk over a deliciously dangerous idea.  

You will always be underqualified, so don’t wait. Jump in.