Marina Budhos on Mentoring Writers

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:

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Photo courtesy of the author

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.

marina_longride.jpgThe 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.

On Mentors and Mentoring, Part 3

Traci Sorell and Kathi Appelt responded to my inquiry about the role that mentoring played in their own lives and how they hope to pass the love along:

Traci Sorrell:

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Photo by Kelly Downs Photography

I wouldn’t be a published author without mentoring. Fellow picture book authors, Ann Ingalls and Sue Lowell Gallion, both members of the SCBWI KS-MO region have been extremely supportive of my development. I met Cynthia Leitich Smith through social media and her guidance on navigating writing as a career has been equally invaluable.

I haven’t served as a writing mentor before, but I have mentored others in previous careers. Serving as a mentor gave me the opportunity to give back for all help I’ve received throughout my life. It reinforced an early lesson I learned about helping others coming behind you (in whatever field you are in) to navigate that journey. Also, it taught me to listen to what the mentee needed (which might not be what I needed as a mentee) and to connect them to the resources that would best help their growth and development.

I hope that by working with my WNDB mentee I’ll learn more about the person and their writing style and interests. I’m also interested in the human or personal connection with other creative folks in this business, so I look forward to how my knowledge base will continue to expand based on the mentee’s background, what they write and what they need most from me as a mentor.

And this from Kathi Appelt, whose exuberant energy and love of children’s books have kindled fires in many writers:

kathi-225x300.jpegWhen I was in the first grade, my teacher Mrs. Beall, looked me squarely in the eyes and said this wonderful thing:  “Kathi, when you grow up, I think you’re going to be a writer.”

She probably said that to every one of the first graders, that’s the kind of teacher she was. But when she said it to me, I had this overwhelming feeling of YES. It wasn’t so much that I intended to become a writer in the first grade. In fact, what I really dreamed of being back then was a cowgirl. But what Mrs. Beall did was plant a seed of possibility. First grade is all about possibilities, about the shape of what can be.

And I think that’s what a good teacher does—shows you the glimmers of what can be.

I’ve had many wonderful teachers, and each one of them has taken my hand and in their own distinctive styles, shown me what is possible.  This is what I aim for in my own work as a mentor, too. And who knows, maybe some day I’ll even become a cowgirl.  It could happen.

Are those not truths to carry in our hearts? The human connection. The glimmer of what can be. Thank you, Traci and Kathi!

See earlier posts on the WNDB mentoring program with contributions from Robin Stevenson, Alex GinoFrancisco X. Stork, Swati Avasthi, and JaNay Brown-Wood.

Note: This is not an official WNDB promotion but a reflection of my personal/professional interest in the program and in diversity in our field.

 

On Mentors and Mentoring, Part 2

More on the relationship of mentoring and writing from a couple more of the 2019 WNDB mentors, writers of distinction who care about books for young people.

Swati Avasthi:

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Photo credit: Anne Marsden

As a teacher at Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I’ve had the honor to mentor many writers.  Each time, I’ve gotten unexpected gifts:  the first look at an amazing manuscript, the knowledge my students have offered from expertise in their day jobs, a connection that outlives graduation, and most importantly, a sense that I am part of a larger community. I’m constantly rewarded, even though I can never anticipate in what form that reward will come.

I’m specifically excited about mentoring at WNDB because I’ve gotten to work with very few mentors of color as a writer over the years and none in my early years. But whenever, I get that chance, something powerful and honest stirs in my work, simply because I’m in a space free from the white gaze. By mentoring in WNDB, I hope to find more and more ways to create a safe and supportive spaces for a writer of color and continue to grow as a mentor. And who knows what other gifts and lessons mentoring will bring?

JaNay Brown-Wood:

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Photos by Tatsu

Something I’ve learned during my time in the children’s literature industry is that there are always more opportunities to learn from individuals at every level of the industry, no matter how seasoned of a writer you are. I think by serving as a mentor, it allows for me to reflect back and think about things I wish I would have known as I started writing, as well as think about tips that helped me along the way. Additionally, looking over someone’s work, critiquing it, providing feedback, catching things that the writer might have overlooked, and pushing them to improve their skills help me as a writer, too. Scrutinizing someone else’s work helps to remind me of best practices in the craft of writing. For example, am I taking my own critique advice in my work? Am I making sure my work includes scenes as opposed to telling? Do my characters sound like children, or adults in children’s bodies? Am I being particular in the words I choose? Is there a true narrative arc including a pressing conflict? These are each things I’ve mentored others with before, so they stay at the forefront of my mind as I write and revise my own work. Lastly, I hope to continue to fine-tune my own teaching and mentor skills so that I can mentor others in the future, leading them to feel excited and proud of the work they produce.

Thanks, Swati and JaNay!

See earlier post on the WNDB mentoring program, with contributions from Robin Stevenson, Alex Gino, and Francisco X. Stork.

Note: This is not an official WNDB promotion but a reflection of my personal/professional interest in the program and in diversity in our field.

On Mentors and Mentoring

Thoughts on the relationship of mentoring and writing from some of the 2019 WNDB mentors, all writers of distinction in the field of writing for young people.

Robin Stevenson:

20180606-20180606-_M8A1392.jpgWhen I started writing, I was on maternity leave and in my mid-thirties. I knew nothing about writing or publishing, so I reached out to the only author I knew- my friend Pat Schmatz. Pat gave me gentle, insightful feedback on manuscript after manuscript, asking perceptive questions about my characters and being curious about my stories-and in the process, helping me become a much better writer. I will always be so grateful for this generosity.

The WNDB mentorship program will be the first time I have served as a mentor in a formal arrangement, but I have been teaching and freelance editing for years. I love supporting other writers as they develop their manuscripts, and I always learn from it myself. I think that reading and responding to other people’s work helps me to view my own writing more critically— and having to articulate my ideas helps to further develop and clarify them. Working with writers as they take a first draft and transform it into a much stronger completed manuscript is inspiring: so much can be achieved in revision. It is always a good reminder to me not to give up on my own uncooperative first drafts! Best of all, I have made many wonderful friends, and have enjoyed watching former students become colleagues. I am very much looking forward to being a mentor for We Need Diverse Books in 2019.

Alex Gino:

alexpenbooklaunch-225x300.jpgHaving a mentor was critical for me as a writer. I don’t think my first book, George, would have been published without it. I had pushed myself through writing a first draft, which was a new accomplishment for me, and I had even gone through and looked for typos and better word choices. But I had no idea how to turn this pile of words into a cohesive story with a full arc divided into satisfying, chapter-size chunks. It was my dear friend, Jean Marie Stine, an amazing sci-fi editor and writer, who sat down with me page by page, looked at the structure of my story, and showed me where to push for me when I didn’t know where to go. I was (and am) extremely lucky to have Jean Marie in my life, but not every writer just happens to know a professional editor. I am delighted to now be able to mentor others through that mysterious process from completed draft to marketable manuscript.

Francisco X. Stork:

francisco_stork.jpgI didn’t have any writing mentors but I was fortunate in my life to have teachers who were willing to be friends with me outside of the classroom. These were individuals who were living with purpose and dedication to their work and their “mentorship” was really the life-example that they provided to me.

I have learned that the role of a writing mentor is not only  about providing feedback to the manuscript or in providing practical advice for publication.  The important part of being a mentor is to share with the mentee what it means to be a writer and the attitudes toward our work and the writing life that are harmful and helpful.

Each mentor-mentee relationship is different. Each is a dialogue and not a monologue,  so there will be growth on both sides.

More to come. Applications accepted in October 2018 for the WNDB 2019 mentorships.

Note: This is not an official WNDB promotion but a reflection of my personal/professional interest in the program and in diversity in our field.

WNDB 2019 Mentorships Announced

a1a3d5c0-e214-46fb-8a60-6b52c89d4cccBeginning in October, the We Need Diverse Books™ (WNDB™) Mentorship Program will accept applications for the program’s fourth consecutive year. The mission of the program is to support writers early in their career by pairing them with an experienced children’s author or illustrator.

A total of 11 applicants will be matched with mentors, in picture book text, middle grade fiction, young adult fiction, MG/YA nonfiction and illustration. Read more about the mentorship and application process on the WNDB™ website. For further information, contact co-chairs Miranda Paul and Meg Cannistra at mentor@diversebooks.org.
The 2019 WNDB™ mentors are an award-winning group of children’s book creators including Alex Gino, Swati Avasthi, Coe Booth, Traci Sorell, Francisco X. Stork, Robin Stevenson, JaNay Brown-Wood, Samantha Berger, Kathi Appelt, Marina Budhos, and Joyce Wan.
I invited the 2019 mentors to share some thoughts about their experiences with mentoring. Look for their responses here in the next few days.

Marion Dane Bauer on”Writer Air” and Mentoring

ph_smMDB01_150dpi.jpgIt's my great delight to talk once again with Marion Dane Bauer. Marion is a beloved writer and teacher. Her blog is a source of inspiration for many. She's a founding mother of the mother of all MFA programs in writing for children and young adults, a Newbery Honor author and a woman of humor and heart.  I got to talk to her about a new mentoring program she's launching.

[Uma] You’re offering something new just for women writers, Marion. You describe it as “occasional brief—Monday through Friday—one-on-one writing retreats for women in my St. Paul, Minnesota home.” It’s nothing less than the gift of your time, mind, and presence. I remember being at a writing retreat years ago and freezing up in the first few days, experiencing an unexpected terror at the solitude and the work ahead. But the presence of a mentor dedicated to me and my project, dedicated to meeting me where I am…it’s astonishing. Just the thought of such an experience makes me focus and take my own work more seriously.

So can you tell me what led you to this?

[Marion] It’s been a winding journey, and the destination turned out to be both inevitable and surprising, as the ending of any good story should be.  I have taught writing all my writing life, and I love teaching.  Having the opportunity to be one of the founding faculty and then the first Faculty Chair for the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults was, for me, the pinnacle of a long teaching career.  I loved the college.  I loved the faculty.  I loved my students.  I loved Vermont.  And of course, I loved teaching!  But the day came when it was all a bit too much  . . . too many students to keep track of, too much travel, too much of a struggle to hear in group conversations, too much time away from home and away from my own work.  So I retired with both regret and relief and settled into simply being a writer, which I’ve always held first anyway.  I told myself I didn’t miss teaching.  When people approached me, asking me to critique a manuscript, I turned them away.

But one day something curious happened.  A friend came to visit bringing a couple of picture book manuscripts she was working on.  She settled into my guest room, and we spent the next few days alternating between work and critique and occasional breaks for play.  And I found myself filling my lungs with what I can only call “writer air.”  It was like getting an extra dose of oxygen.

A few days after she left, another friend, a former student, came to town.  We met for breakfast and she told me about her struggle to get a new novel under control.  It seemed the most natural thing in the world to say, “Come home with me.  I have a room waiting for you.”  And she did.  We spent several days talking through and straightening her too-complex story line.

It was during one of those conversations that I found myself thinking, This is fun!  And then, I’d like to do this more often!  And the idea of mentoring writers in my home sprang to life.

[Uma] As you begin working with writers in this new and very intentional way, what are you finding out? About the process? About yourself?

[Marion] First, I’ve found out some things I already knew.  That I love teaching, that I do my best teaching one on one, and that my ability to pull a clear trajectory out of a story can get a mired manuscript moving again.

Second, in the intensity of this one-on-one exchange I have come to be especially aware how important it is never to intrude on another writer’s work.  I’m learning that I am most effective when I listen hardest and hear most clearly what the writer intends.

And third, I’ve discovered what a deep pleasure it is to have so much of my career behind me.  I’m still writing, of course, but I no longer have anything to prove, even to myself.  Being in that place opens me to real rejoicing over the success that comes to others and that rejoicing gives me energy to help propel those others forward.

[Uma] Can the intention itself be a changeable thing? Can the work sometimes take its own direction and outgrow the writer's original vision for it? Often we need to shed both ego and intention to follow the story's path rather than our own. How does the mentoring context foster honest engagement with a work in progress?

[Marion] My experience is that our stories, if they come from our deepest, most hidden places as our best stories do, speak a truth we are struggling to apprehend.  Sometimes we can get in our own way, in the way of our stories, as we work because we are trying to impose a truth rather than discover it.  A discerning reader, standing outside the story, can often see more clearly than the writer herself the truth she is reaching for.   And that is the moment when working with a mentor becomes gold.

A good editor can be that mentor, of course, but these days for most writers a manuscript has to be almost perfectly executed before that editor will come on board.  And so it can help enormously to have access to a source of objective and committed insight before a manuscript ever seeks an editor.

[Uma] No one knows better than you how teaching and writing can be mutually strengthening, and also how one can get in the way of the other. How do you see the mentoring retreats fitting in with your own writing life?

[Marion] I make it clear to my retreatants that I will be available but still going on with my own life and my own work while they are here, and I do just that.  I also limit the number of retreatants I invite into my home.

But beyond that it’s all gain for me.  Clarifying someone else’s story brings new clarity to my own, and simply talking, day after intensive day, in writer-speak—plot, point of view, voice, motivation—renews both the clarity and the energy I bring to my own pages.  When I live in isolation from other writers, my work begins to lose its legitimacy in my own eyes.  It doesn’t matter how many books I have published, some of the sense that what I’m doing matters slips away.  Talking to another writer, I find the significance of my own work again.  It’s that easy.

That I can do all this without leaving my home couldn’t be more perfect.  Gathering someone into my nest, nurturing her, building a new friendship or renewing an old one, all while helping a fellow writer’s work grow . . .  what better way could I spend the golden years of my career?

[Uma] And what better way to share the love than in this beautiful space? Look what you get for the week: rides to and from the airport, gourmet meals, pampering, company and solitude in the proportions that work for you–all this and manuscript whispering, the Marion way! Lucky writers.

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