But You're Not A God, You're A Mentor! New poets' work is an extension of their lives
By James Strecker
Athena, goddess of prudent intelligence, assumed the Mentor's shape to counsel.
A mentor sure has big shoes to fill.
After all, the original "wise counselor" was none other than Mentor, the advisor of Odysseus' son Telemachus, in the epic of Homer. And get this -- Athena, goddess of prudent intelligence, took to assuming the straight-talking Mentor's shape in order to give humans counsel.
Still, when a budding poet asks for your guidance, you as merely mortal soon find your stature much less than god/goddess-like and the task some butt-paining, really hard slugging. The reasons vary.
Writers new to poetry can be an understandably insecure bunch in their virgin forays into a literary unknown. Simply put, they haven't written enough, so each critique seems more a test of their existential worth than a helpful peek at their words. They take what you say very personally. And why shouldn't they?
The new poet's work is an extension of the writer's life, to be sure, and has followed its own logic into existence. To a professional, writing is ideally a balance of life experience and technical savoir faire, but the inexperienced writer is much less comfortable letting a poem stand on creative merit alone.
"Let's get back to what you have actually written and not the whole of your life," you, the mentor, will plead many times.
Or, even more frustrating, the writer might treat the mentor as one somehow deficient, one who doesn't get it, and ask, "Isn't the writing obvious with sincerity, cleverness incarnate, exactly what I wish to say? Isn't writing an individual's unique voice, so who, in the end, can challenge it? Don't I, the writer, know what I am doing and aren't you, the mentor, always on the outside looking in with all your suggestions and judgements?".
Okay, folks, where do we go with that?
Well, let's skip all the choices from (b) to (f) and go with (a) which says the following: "You, as a mentor, have to demand of yourself what you expect of the young writer. You have to re-assert to yourself, each day sometimes, how your heart lives in mentoring, assert again that your need to mentor is not the whore of loneliness, remind yourself that every thing you do as a mentor can be alive and creative. Or it can be dead."
Then further realize that everything you do as a mentor can be taken as an assault on a novice writer who might be quite satisfied without your intrusion. Try to reach this person, change a comma, and understand that they might not care about writing as much as you. You might find that one person's depth is not so deep to another -- and this goes both ways.
Still, you patiently try to snatch each clue the helped one puts out, each clue that will help you, the mentor, mentor. If you use a clue well, this poet might go, sometimes without knowing it, where they need to go as a writer.
But ain't life like this? As you mentor, you begin to detect your own shallowness, question your own dedication to writing, your own level or version of honesty, your own safe habits, your own ability. Or, as actors might say, you seem to "first time" everything you know about writing.
So, wise counsel, you again feel like a struggling amateur. But, time for the prize, you are now ready to mentor with all the knowledge you must prove anew. You are ready for a first time ever occasion that might change you, the mentored one, and anyone within 10 feet, beyond recognition. You are ready to teach what you are learning, not what you were certain you knew.
And you're a better mentor for all that, especially each time you learn something new from the mentored one.
James Strecker is the author or editor of two dozen books and CD-ROMs. His collaborators as a poet include artist Harold Town, in the books Black on jazz and Pas De Vingt on ballet, photographer Bill Smith, and composers Barend Schipper and Wolfgang Bottenberg. He is also a journalist and a human development consultant trained in Focusing, the Intensive Journal, and Graphoanalysis. He is currently writing a book on creativity and is seeking a publisher for his book for writers. http://www.jamesstrecker.com/js.htm email: firstname.lastname@example.org