Whom have I learned from? In whose footsteps have I followed? What have I done to nurture those who will follow me? Having been in this writing business now for some 30 years, and taught writers for about twenty of them, I suppose it’s natural to think about such questions from time to time.
I have followed Marina Budhos‘s work for years, ever since I read her incandescent novel, The Professor of Light. So when I learned she was part of the WNDB 2019 group of mentors, I asked her if she’d write me a reflection on what mentorship means to her.
Here is what she wrote:
I was recently thinking about mentorship, because I was listening to a writer speak about her own experience. In this case, she has been mentored by very strong figures—for better or worse—and yet she herself kept a distance from too much entanglement with students.
I never had any clear mentors, and I wish I did. As an undergraduate student, I dove into writing and some of my professors recognized my seriousness as a writer. In graduate school, while I had professors who taught me a good deal about writing, I really had no close mentors. I came to be largely self-taught and self-sufficient. Thus, when I came to New York City and began to publish short stories and sought out an agent for my emerging novel, I was confused and easily discouraged. Indeed the person who taught me the most about developing myself as a writer and making certain career choices is my partner, co-writer and husband, Marc Aronson.
I have been teaching a long time, in many settings, so there is no doubt that I’ve been a mentor to many emerging writers, in different ways. When I taught in a low-residency program, the structure is much more one-on-one and I developed sustained relationships with those students, some of whom went on to publish and thrive. I am a professor, so when I notice a gifted undergraduate student, I will pull them aside and put books or stories in their hands; for some of my graduate students, I’ve tried to guide them with their work, and how to start to imagine and envision a finished manuscript and real publication. Sometimes, with some students, they interest me so much that I will probe and prod and reflect with them so as to open them up to other possibilities in not just their writing, but their thinking and feeling in the world.
In terms of my mentorship for We Need Diverse Books, I have a few aims. One, I’m hoping that a gleam in my mentee’s eye can become a reality for her. And I’m hoping I can give her some professional sense of what it takes to write the kind of nonfiction book she has proposed, and what publishers will be looking for. When I was coming up as an emerging writer, I had no one explain to me the path toward publishing; I had no sense of how to ask for help, or where I should put my energy. I virtually gave away my first novel to a fledgling press with no proper representation. I’m hoping that I can provide this, because otherwise writing, and writing to make a project a reality, is so amorphous.
The other aspect of this, which is particular to We Need Diverse Books, is my aim is to encourage more writers of color to write nonfiction. So often when we speak about diversity, we’re thinking about fiction, but in my mind, I’d like to see more diverse writers in the realm of nonfiction. Not only can they bring to the world stories, histories, discoveries that readers have not seen, but simply put, I’d like to see more writers of color conceive of themselves as nonfiction writers too. I often think it’s an arena that writers of color don’t realize they can succeed in, and the more they succeed, the more editors will come to them with topics or contributions to anthologies.
Marina Budhos’s latest YA novel, The Long Ride, is a story of friendship that builds and sustains three mixed-race girls in the 1970’s era of bussing.