Wednesday, April 28, 2010

My Grandfather and Other Mentors

I walked to the local coffee shop tonight, hoping that I'd be able to get some serious writing done. It has been going well over the past week, but like a lot of my writing projects, I get overwhelmed. I'm writing a memoir, and it looks like it's going to have several different aspects to it, and it's creating a lot of anxiety for me. This is the dangerous time for me: when I get overwhelmed, I get full of self-doubt, and the odds are that I will start to falter and stop writing.

I also get very anxious because I feel like I don't have enough time to really do a good job. With a 40+ hour a week job, a house to keep up, and a million other projects going, time to write is at a high premium. It's at times like these that I really wish my grandfather was still around, because I think he would have been a terrific mentor.

Over the past year, I've been able to keep my memory of my grandfather somewhat alive. I've got the Wild West Weekly stories to read, and now I've got the unpublished stories that I found. But sometimes it's almost as if he's turned into some other kind of entity, like an estate. It's evenings like this that I want the person, not the memory or the legacy, back.

I think he would have given practical advice on how to structure this confounded memoir, and would have given me some tips on the writing process. I think he also would have told me when I was making excuses or whining or too ambitious or when he thought I was full of shit. But most of all, he would have been a cheerleader - someone who really believed that I could write something of quality and would tell me that. When you think of it, a good mentor has all of these abilities.

But I am so very lucky in a lot of ways, even though he isn't here. I can read PULP WRITER again, closely, and especially the parts when he was struggling. I also have his journals from the years when he was really struggling (1950-53), and while a lot of it is mundane, (fed the dog, went for a walk, etc.) there are parts that will help me. For a while I guess that will have to do.

I had two very good mentors while I was going through the process of writing my parts for PULP WRITER. Dan Horowitz, my advisor in college, was the first. Even though Smith College is a very liberal and PC-conscious school, and most students write their honors theses on lofty subjects, he did not once show me that he thought writing a thesis on pulp Westerns was a ridiculous idea. The other was Ann Parker, a mystery author, who I worked with at my job in Livermore. I had failed miserably as a science writer for the Lab's monthly magazine, and to say that I was very discouraged is a massive understatement. Ann met me for lunch occasionally and over a course of a few months, encouraged me and when the time was right, suggested that I deliver ten pages by our next meeting. Very simple baby steps. Yet it made a world of difference.

Mentoring can be a very fulfilling endeavor and having a mentor is something that many writers crave. But I imagine that being a mentor can be very time consuming. Thank your lucky stars if you have one. I think we should have a National Mentor Appreciation Day.

Enough of me. What about all of you? Who were, or are, your mentors? Are they still around? I'd like to hear about them.

9 comments:

David Cranmer said...

It is difficult to write (or edit) after an eight to ten hour day. My fingers are crossed for you and I'm sure you will pull this project together.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My grandfather died when I was twelve and I still miss him. He had things to tell me I never heard.

James Reasoner said...

The first editor to buy a story from me was a mentor of sorts. His name was Sam Merwin Jr., and he was a veteran writer and editor from the pulp era. He was editing MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE in the mid-Seventies (he was also the original editor of MSMM when it started in the Fifties). I sent him dozens of stories and got personal rejections from him on all of them, explaining what was wrong with the stories. He must have seen something in my writing he liked, because he kept encouraging me, albeit in a crusty, veteran editor way. Finally he started buying what I sent him and not long after that asked me to write some of the Mike Shayne novellas for the magazine. He passed away a long time ago, but I've always felt a great debt to him and still do.

I learned a lot about everything else in life from my dad. He's been gone six years and I still catch myself thinking I need to ask him about something every now and then.

Richard R. said...

Mentors? My parents, though with my father, what I learned was practical, how to lay brick, cut wood, prune fruit trees. These were things he enjoyed, hobbies, things he did on weekends to relax after working a 50-60 hour week as a top-level manager for a large company. I never understood the pressures he was under at that job, it was not discussed, but when he put on the old "weekend pants" and went outside to work (we lived on a few acres, mostly in avocados) he was happy, and I tagged along.

My mother was the reader, the artist and also a high school English teacher. I learned a lot from her.

I have no personal experience with writing other than what I do on the blog and in my hard copy apa-zine, but I've read over and over that the only thing to do is "write through it". You have a worthy project, something others will want to read.

Charles Gramlich said...

It's hard to do, but always keep in mind, writing is a process. It doesn't matter how much progress you make any one day, as long as you make progress.

Laurie Powers said...

Thanks David. As long as I keep up the momentum, I think I'll be all right.

Patti, I know what you mean. Makes you wonder how different your life would be if they had been around a little bit longer.

James, just goes to show something that I neglected to say in the original post: sometimes mentors' personalities don't mesh with ours, or a mentor comes along disguised as something else.

Rick: The advice you've given me so far has been invaluable, so that shows that sometimes mentors don't have to necessarily be in the same profession as yours. :)

Charles: you're right. It doesn't matter how much you write, but just that you're writing. At least that's what I keep telling myself.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I never had a mentor, but one influence comes to mind: Bob Juanillo. He seemed to think I had some ability and took it for granted that I could write. That made me think I could.

Melissa Marsh said...

I had two mentors in high school - both of them English teachers. I am in touch with them, but it is very sporadic, and they really don't have anything to do with my writing journey right now. I'd love to have a writing mentor right about now. I could use the encouragement and support. My family is great at both of those things, but since they are not writers themselves, it's hard for them to understand it all.

I hear you on finding time to write after the day job - that's part of the reason I got rid of the t.v. so that I could force myself to use that time to write (or research or whatever) instead of being a couch vegetable.

Laurie Powers said...

I know what you mean, Melissa, about finding a mentor. I'd like to find a writing group that focuses on non-fiction writing as opposed to fiction. Hard to find. I'm lucky in that another writer/friend of mine who teaches a memoir class at a community college has offered to mentor me in this work I'm doing now. You might be able to find someone online. You can ship them pages and talk via phone.