I’ve been thinking about literary mentorship. I have just gotten back from the incredible Room of Her Own Foundation’s week long writing retreat held at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.
A Room of Her Own’s mission is: To inspire, fund, and champion works of art and literature by women.
Over 100 women: poets, playwrights, fiction writers, essayists, etc., gathered in the desert to write and dream together and to build literary community. It was a thrilling and rare opportunity!
I suspect over the coming weeks, all the bits of wisdom that I gained will pour out of me. Right now, however, I am still digesting one particular experience that yielded up unexpected insight.
Besides the week long master classes that met for three hours a day, participants could also take a one time only ‘Studio Hour’, held for an hour in the morning. The Studio Hours offered sessions on writing development, performance, and the writing life. I decided to check out Dr. Li Yun Alvarado’s Studio Hour on ‘Womentorship’. This session was designed to explore and celebrate “the women mentors who’ve helped pave our way.”
Dr. Alvarado had quotes from the edited volume, Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections printed out on large pieces of paper, placed around the room. We were encouraged to take one that resonated with us.
Jennifer Moxley on Susan Howe:
“I was not mentored by Susan Howe, but I was mentored by her writing, and through this ‘invisible company’ I learned a great deal. I suppose I could have a similar ‘library apprenticeship’ with any number of dead women writers, but I have no doubt that the fact that Howe was living and trying to make sense of being a woman poet at the same time that I was greatly increased the meaningfulness of her advice. I replied to her letter, perhaps too quickly or with too much enthusiasm. I never heard from her again. The thrill of engaging an older poet as countless male writers had done was followed by disappointment and self-doubt when the correspondence did not ‘take.’ I was hurt at the time, but thinking about it now, I’m thankful that Howe refused my overture. The message I gleaned from her reticence has been crucial to sustaining my artistic life: to survive you must insist on your own vision in defiance of both style and the silence of others. An important lesson for any writer, but particularly for a woman” (131).
After we chose our quotes we were handed a strip of colored paper with a prompt and encouraged to write for about twenty minutes.
Here’s the prompt I received: Describe your first encounter with a mentor, a potential womentor, and/or the work of a womentor. Do your best to ONLY DESCRIBE the encounter, voiding commentary about or analysis of the encounter. Simply paint a picture of the moment.
I sat down eager, thinking the words would come easy. I started reflecting on the first person (besides my mother) who showed any interest in my writing. She was a high school teacher and I wrote in her English class a long narrative poem that had a speculative fiction element to it. I don’t even know if I still have the poem, but I remember working on it for weeks. It was the first long form creative writing I ever attempted. I had just started reading fantasy fiction and wanted to enter into that world. I remember her being kind and encouraging to me. I remember she would ask me about writing for many months after that and suggest books that I could read. She treated me as if I was already a writer and a part of a special club.
And, then much to my surprise, I couldn’t recall having another female (or male) mentor for my writing life until five years ago. I’ve had wonderful teachers, cheerleaders, encouragers, supporters and fans along the way. But, in writing this prompt, I it became really clear to me that I didn’t have a literary mentor, in the full sense of the word until recently. A literary mentor is someone who not only teaches you about craft and the writing life and reads your work, but also shares information about the bewildering world of publishing, introduces you to people, and perhaps nominates you for fellowships and writing residencies. A literary mentor is someone invested in your inner creative live in a deep and profound way.
It seems strange that I hadn’t realized I had been missing a mentor before now. Still, it came as a revelation, one that made me angry and then sad. I think the sadness stemmed from the fact that I am a professor (in women’s studies) and I love to mentor students and am good at it. It is a unique kind of emotional labor. Although the work of mentoring is not easy, it is something I gravitate to.
I think at one point in my life I yearned for a kind of mentoring intimacy that wasn’t available for my creative life. When the group reconvened, we discussed our varied experiences with mentoring. Although I understand that lots of writers are never deeply mentored, it still felt important for me to acknowledge a powerful absence that shaped a good chunk of my writing life.
I am profoundly grateful that a mentoring relationship evolved with my primary writing teacher over the past five years. Although I have thanked her often and publicly, and acknowledged that she saved my writing life, I sent her an email yesterday telling her how much I appreciated her. I met her when I was 41 and I probably would have stopped writing if I hadn’t met her when I did.
What’s been your experience with mentors, especially female ones? Have you had a female mentor that supports your creative life? How did that relationship evolve?
To help you percolate ideas, you may want to try writing any of these prompts that Dr. Alvarado provided:
-Brainstorm a list of potential metaphors that could be applied to you, to your womentor and/or to your womentoring relationship. Now use that metaphor or metaphors as a central element in a poem, a series of poems, or a narrative piece of fiction or nonfiction
-Write a letter from your mentor to you.
-Write a poem or series of poems with the title ‘Womentorship’
A Room of Her Own’s nonprofit mission is: To inspire, fund, and champion works of art and literature by women. They host one of only about five or so writing residencies, in the country, exclusively for women.
It is a competitive residency and I am thrilled that I was accepted. There will be over 100 women writers attending (emerging writers to well established authors like Janet Fitch and Tayari Jones!), and I will get to take master classes and workshops with a range of amazing writers including Elizabeth L. Silver, Mary Johnson and Cynthia Leitich Smith. We will also spend our evenings discussing the retreat theme ‘Writing Against the Current’ which is a focus on Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando and Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel, Woman Warrior–and Kingston will be there in residence!
Another honor is that I will also be a ‘studio leader’ presenting a one hour version of my popular workshop: ‘Tone Your Creative Core: 5 Secrets for Artists’. This workshop offers strategies in areas where most creative people struggle: time, abundance and prosperity, feeling worthy to create and goal-setting. I’m delighted to explore these issues with women writers.
Writing residencies are structured in various ways. Some provide room, board and solitude, offering uninterrupted time to write with no other requirements. Others, like AROHO are much more interactive, including: providing intensive workshops (sharing and critiquing other participants’ work), hosting nightly receptions and readings, offering craft lectures, and encouraging networking and collaboration. I’ve known writers who have attended each type of residency. We often think the hardest part is getting accepted to one, but this isn’t the whole picture.
I’ve spent the last few months preparing for this incredible opportunity and have noticed that although there are a number of wonderful posts about why one should apply to a writing residency (see Jennifer Chen’s musings), and where to apply for one (here’s a great list from ‘The Write Life’), there is almost no discussion about preparing for the residency and making the most of it while there. Besides of course, to write.
Making the most of one’s residency means giving some thought to hidden challenges.
I’ve seen writers come back from a residency deflated because they had set unrealistic writing goals. Most folks are exhausted by the time they get to attend a writing residency. They’ve been juggling work, family responsibilities, community commitments, etc., often at a frenzied place. It can take a few days, during the residency, to decompress and reconnect to deep creative work. I’ve also known writers whose inner critics got the best of them and consequently didn’t get as much writing done. Or they got so intimidated by the other writers and instructors that they weren’t able to make enduring connections or contacts.
Here’s my five tips for making the most of a residency:
Make Your Goals Inspiring, Not Exhausting
Setting unclear or overly ambitious goals during a residency can lead to a big letdown. Writing residencies are also about allowing inspiration and spontaneity, so being flexible with goals can allow for more enjoyment as the writing process unfolds.
For most of the week, I’ll be taking a master class on ‘Emerging Heroes: Diversity in Young Adult Fiction’ with Cynthia Leitich Smith. I know little about writing young adult fiction and am super excited about stretching myself as a writer. Consequently, given the intensity of learning a new field, getting and giving feedback on others’ writing and the possibility having to work on prompts that Cynthia may assign outside of the workshop, I’m keeping my writing goals modest. From the schedule, it looks like I’ll have a daily 2-3 hours of individual writing time. I’m shooting for 10-20 pages a day of writing. That feels doable. I’ll also allow myself to create fresh material as well as work on current projects.
Give Yourself Permission to Embody Being the Writer of Your Dreams
Writing residencies present an opportunity to practice being a writer in public. Often aspiring writers write behind closed doors and without many opportunities to get publicly affirmed about their writing efforts. This is the time to revel in one’s writing identity. I’m going to take every opportunity to walk, dress and act like I am the writer of my dreams. I’m wrapping myself in an inner shawl of ‘deservingness’. I am holding the intention to attend every nightly reception and meet a few new people. I also hope to meet newly published authors that I’ll want to invite for an author interview for the blog.
Do an Inner Critic Check
Visual artist, Beverly McIver once said at a professional development workshop for artists, “Feeling worthy is a learned behavior.” Inner critics can make themselves known during a residency and derail us. In various posts, I’ve discussed some of the more common inner critics including the comparer, the pusher, the judger, the imposter, the procrastinator and the perfectionist. Inner critics inspire fear, judgement, dread and envy toward our writing selves and writing lives. Spending some time addressing inner critics (and assigning them new jobs where possible), before and during the residency can help quiet draining mental chatter and quell anxiety.
Polish Your Social Media Profile
Social media is often where people will find you first. I’m hoping to make strong connections while I’m at AROHO. I’ve already started to look up some of the people in my master class and have enjoyed learning about them through their social media sites. In the past month, I’ve spent some time updating my bio across my social media sites and beefing up my author Facebook page. You never know when someone is going to look up after making a connection, so it’s important that they can find you. A that what they find out about you inspires and draws them in.
Practice Communicating about Your Work
What is your work like? What are you working on? These are the essential questions to consider when talking about one’s work. Do you have an elevator pitch? Many writers (and artists in general) tend to avoid communicating about their work or freeze up when they do talk about their work. Given the time and emotional investment we have made for our creative pursuits, communicating about it is necessary and part of the creative process. I’ve been practicing my brief elevator pitch and look forward to using it.
Here’s great advice on elevator pitches from the Artist’s Tools Handbook from Creative Capital:
In theater, a rule of thumb is that, for every minute of stage time in a play, you need an hour of rehearsal time–and that’s when the script is already written. So think about spending at least an hour on this. Don’t just repeat your pitch 60 times; it’s more a measure of how long you should concentrate to get something good.
If you have tips to share about your experience at a residency and how you made the most of it, I’d love to hear them.
Photo credit: “Ghost Ranch redrock cliffs, clouds” by Larry Lamsa
Posted July 27, 2015on:
Hi! This summer I’ve been thinking about my blog and you, dear reader. And, how I can serve you even better.
In 2009, I began this blog. I wanted a place that I could share insights about how people can practice their creativity ‘smackdab’ in the middle of their life. What a journey it’s been!
By 2010 I was an enthusiastic though inconsistent blogger. In 2011, I made a promise to myself to posting once a week. This commitment transformed my experience of blogging and writing generally. And, I have loved every minute of it. I’ve enjoyed conducting interviews with creative professionals and sharing them here. I’ve loved connecting with other bloggers and folks on the creative path (i.e. you!).
So, this brings me to a request. Moving forward, I want to continue to write about creativity and what is of most interest to you. Therefore, I’ve developed a fun, one question poll to find out what you might be wrestling with in your creative life. Would you take a minute and fill it out?
Thanks in advance! Thanks for your support and engagement over these many years.
And, feel free to drop me a line here, or at firstname.lastname@example.org if there are specific topics you’d like me to explore.
Hi dear reader! I’ll have some exciting news to share with you in just a few days! And, other creative surprises, too! Working hard until then.
No matter how lumpy or faded or boring you feel, your creativity is of value.
Creativity author and mentor, Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy (aka SARK) has written a lot on inner critics and how they can sabotage our creative work. Inner critics are the sharp-tongued internal voices that often prevent us from writing and/or creating. They speak to us with the seemingly definitive voice of KNOWING ABOUT EVERYTHING CREATIVE. Our inner critics, judges, and evaluators are uninvited guests during our writing sessions. Inner critics usually know how to do just one thing and have long outlived whatever protective role they once had. They won’t leave until we imaginatively assign them a new “job”.
I’ve had great fun reassigning many inner critics to new jobs*. One inner critic was called ‘Relentless Ruthie’ and no matter what I did, according to her, I wasn’t doing it fast or good enough. My accomplishments were only as good as yesterday. She was methodical, meticulous and intense. In dreaming up a new job for her, I wondered where her qualities might be really valued. SARK suggested that Relentless Ruthie would be perfect in being security detail on Air Force One. I agreed! Since being reassigned in my imagination, I haven’t heard a peep from RR in years.
SARK notes that a typical inner critic is the ‘comparer’. This critic is hyper focused on comparing us to others. I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of comparison in one’s creative life and the word COMPARISON.
Have you ever read a novel (or your creative equivalent) and thought, ‘This sucks. I can write SO much better than this’ (and felt quite good and superior about it)? Then, perhaps in the same week, have you ever read a book by a different author and thought, ‘God, I can NEVER write like this. This is brilliant’ (and felt quite inadequate)?
One can go between these extremes in the same week or even day!
A few days ago, I started doodling the word ‘comparison’ and I saw that is has the word PRISON contained in it. This made me think of how often we put our writing/creative selves in prison when we spend too much time comparing. Our job, as creative folk, is not to swing between feeling superior and feeling inadequate, but is to just do the work and honor our own process. Most of the time this is easier said than done! I wondered why I never noticed prison in the word comparison before, but was glad I got the message!
Do you notice when your ‘inner comparer’ gets activated? How do you respond?
*Two wonderful SARK books that have long discussions about (and great exercises for) dealing with inner critics is Make Your Creative Dreams Real: A Plan for Procrastinators, Perfectionists, Busy People, Avoiders and People Who Would Rather Sleep All Day and Prosperity Pie: How to Relax About Money and Everything Else. I highly recommend them.
Posted July 6, 2015on:
This has been a good week for celebrating women artists; both their individual and collective achievements.
Not having a community of supportive peers and not seeing yourself represented in artistic expression is something many creative women face*. She Writes and Misty Copeland remind us of the importance of community, perseverance and staying true to one’s vision, even in the face of bias.
Six years ago, writer and visionary Kamy Wicoff began She Writes (with Deborah Siegel), as an online home for women writers to understand “the rapidly changing, head-spinningly complex world of publishing.” They felt that “women writers in particular–needed a place to come together to share what they were learning, be inspired, and gather information about the craft and the business of writing.” As she has said recently, they “created what they most needed.” They began with 40 members and now have 26,000 enthusiastic members around the world. They are the largest community of women writers online. Both emerging and well-established writers find She Writes to be a thriving and significant hub.
During the past six years, Kamy and her team have worked hard to demystify publishing and empower women to value their words and develop confidence in taking those words into the publishing marketplace. She Writes has grown up alongside the increasing acknowledgement by many that there are gender equality issues in contemporary literary culture (see VIDA: Women in Literary Arts for research and history).
Membership to SW is free. I discovered it almost four years ago and have found it to be a treasure trove of resources, intelligent discussion and incredible writerly support. On SW, you can blog, network and join over 360 groups representing every aspect of writing and publishing imaginable including ‘Mothers Write!’ ‘Funny Women’, ‘Authors of Interracial/Multicultural Romance and Fiction’, ‘Literary Fiction Writers v. 2.0’, ‘Google Analytics’, ‘Prompt Monster’, ‘You Go Girl Poetry’, etc. I’m a member of the groups ‘Blooming Late’ (women who started writing seriously after the age of 40) and ‘What Did You Blog About Today?’.
Kamy and her amazing team has also recently ventured into publishing and created She Writes Press. Their mission is to elevate the words and stories of women and offer a new model of publishing. Check them out!
Keep up the great work, She Writes!
African American ballet dancer Misty Copeland was recently promoted to principal ballerina at American Ballet Theatre. A historic accomplishment and long overdue. Copeland persevered. This recent honor speaks to her extraordinary personal accomplishment, but also her courage in calling attention to the unspoken biases about body size, stereotyping and race that have shaped the world of American ballet.
Only nine years ago, I remember clipping and ruminating on the article “Where Are All the Black Swans?” in the New York Times. The article highlights how class and race bias show up in the ballet world, from early schooling to professional opportunities. It is very hard to accomplish something creative if you can’t envision it and envision someone who looks like you succeeding at it. Misty Copeland’s dedication to the craft of ballet and her own vision will have ripple effects for many aspiring, young female dancers, especially girls from underrepresented groups.
Photo of Misty Copeland: Henry Leutwyler
For the last ten days, I have been spending time with family and friends in WI and MN. Most of the time I was in remote places with no wi-fi or cellphone reception. It felt great to rest, rejuvenate and look up at the stars each night. Summer vacations encourage us to expand and try new things. I tried paddle boarding for the first time and loved it! On a vacation without access to wi-fi, I find that I come up with completely fresh ideas. I often create my own writing prompts based on pictures that I take while on vacation. I set the timer for ten minutes and begin freewriting. Writing to a visual prompt is a great way to get your creative juices flowing.
Here are some fun prompts for you to try. You may use them to flesh out an existing set of characters, or you might find yourself writing something completely unexpected! Enjoy!