Writer Kathryn Heyman, who is also the fiction program director for the Faber Academy in Australia, writes of the pleasure involved in mentoring a writer on to his or her own excellence.
She’s waiting in the corner of the cafe, head down, scribbling notes in the corner of the page, the picture of creative industry as the traffic hums past. We order coffee, pull out pens, and dive into her writing. We meet each month, and each month I’m more excited by what I read.
I’m not her editor, and I am not her teacher. She is a blossoming writer, and I am her mentor. Each month, she sends me several chapters of her novel-in-progress. Several days later, we meet and – amidst much laughter – we talk through what she’s written.
Sometimes, she is stuck for what to do next. On those days, we pull out index cards, write down chapter titles, shuffle them around, discuss and debate. We talk about her fictional characters intently, moving them from place to place. In that hour or so in the cafe, they are real people. When she leaves, she will be alone with them again.
Some months, I take the role of an editor – other months, I am a cheerleader, calling her on to the glorious end that I can see. I can see it and believe it because I have been in her chair. I’ve been the one struggling to believe that I can complete that first book, or that anyone will care if I do.
My role is to pass on my experience and hope that she can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes.
Although I am often speaking to writers around the world via the wonders of modern technology, mentoring is an ancient practice, dating back to the early Greeks and to the very first mentor.
Calling you on to your own excellence
In Homer’s tale The Odyssey, King Odysseus has left his son, Telemachus, in Ithaca while Odysseus spent years fighting the Trojan War and more years trying to return. So who will young Telemachus find as his role model? Who will help him navigate the treacherous path to manhood? Telemachus needs someone wise to guide him. An elder, a trusted friend, Mentor, takes up the role of guide for Telemachus. At a crucial moment in the narrative, the goddess Athene disguises herself as Mentor and steps in to give crucial advice to the young prince. Go and ask King Nestor for some information, she says. What will I say? Telemachus asks. According to Homer, ‘the goddess, grey-eyed Athene, encouraged him; the right words, she said, would come.’
Athene, in disguise as Mentor, does not instruct Telemachus. She doesn’t give him her own words. She doesn’t hand him a script. She simply points him to his own wisdom and reminds him of the skills which he has been taught by Mentor. The moment Athene disguises herself in this way, Mentor is no longer a person, but a role.
In working with Athene as his mentor, Telemachus doesn’t want to become like Athene. Instead he understands that he needs help to become a better version of himself.
That’s the role of the mentor, the calling you on to your own excellence. As a writing mentor, I’ve worked with writers across a range of genres, each with their own voice and a vision that I help them coax to life.
Bestselling writer and founder of London publishing house, The Women’s Press, Stephanie Dowrick is someone who knows a thing or two about excellence. On her role as a Writers’ Mentor, she says:
I am inviting the new writer to be the best they can be, to be rigorous and truthful and I bring everything to that partnership that I took to all my roles as editor and publisher. It’s a pleasure and a privilege.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle observed three forms of knowledge: techne, practical skill; episteme, intellectual knowledge; and phronesis, perhaps most closely described as practical wisdom. It is a balance of craft or technical skills with deep knowledge that leads to this deepest form of wisdom. That’s what mentoring aims for.
Let’s say you’re trying to write your first novel, or a memoir. You tap away at the keyboard, with only the sound of your own breath to keep you company, and every so often you read the words out to your writing group over cups of tea. They adore it. You’re brilliant, they glow. Yet, you know the book isn’t ready, that something is missing.
You can almost imagine it, can almost see yourself standing with the published book in your hands. If only you could get from here to there. But how? A mentor takes on the role of practised guide, passing on the practical wisdom that he or she has acquired through thousands of hours of flying time.
Mentors don’t necessarily offer intellectual knowledge of critical work, though they may. Nor do they instruct in the detailed technical capabilities of craftwork, though they may. What mentorship offers, above all, is this practical wisdom, this phronesis, which may well be unavailable by other means.
Mentoring assumes that there is a gap between where you are and where you want to be. In that way, it’s similar to therapy, or teaching. Unlike therapy, though, in mentoring there is an assumption that the mentee can see what’s on the other side of the gap. I want to be a successful screenwriter. I want to publish a novel. I want to run my own company. Mentoring is aspirational, in that it acknowledges a desire to move forward. It’s a model of learning which works for teenagers and octogenarians, for creatives and corporates alike.
Last year I attended launch parties for three writers I’d mentored, and applauded wildly as another was shortlisted for a national award. I held each of those books in my hands and understood, for a moment, how Athene must have felt cheering Telemachus on to his best, true self. A pleasure and a privilege indeed.
Kathryn Heyman’s fifth novel, Floodline, was published in September 2013. Her first novel, The Breaking, was shortlisted for the Stakis Award for the Scottish Writer of the Year and longlisted for the Orange Prize. She has judged several literary awards, including serving as the senior judge for all panels of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. She is now fiction program director for the Faber Academy in Australia and is the director of the Australian Writers Mentoring Program.