Writers and Mentors and What Happens In Between

On the vagaries and virtues of the literary mentorship—Miranda Hill talks with Rick Moody, Jim Shepard, Zsuzsi Gartner, Sarah Selecky, and John Burnside.

March 12, 2013

Miranda Hill is the author of the story collection Sleeping Funny (Doubleday Canada, 2012). She is a graduate of the Optional Residency MFA in...

||Though they later fell out, Richard Wright (left) provided encouragement to a young Ralph Ellison and got him the job that provided much of the material for Invisible Man.

In writing circles, it's not unusual to hear seasoned writers maligning the output of MFA programs and wondering why the kids can’t just get it together, move into a garret and learn things on their own, the way writers did in the good old days.

For a more varied perspective, I asked five teachers of creative writing (who are also respected writers) to talk about the experience of teaching or mentoring and the effects they may have on their students—as writers and people.

Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of the Giller-nominated Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, and has worked at the MFA program at the University of British Columbia where she taught several years of students, including me and another member of our panel, Sarah Selecky. Sarah is the author of the Giller-nominated collection This Cake is for the Party. Sarah has been teaching creative writing “in her living room” for ten years, and recently developed a comprehensive online instruction module called “Story is a State of Mind.” John Burnside is a Scottish writer and poet whose most recent collection, Black Cat Bone, won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2011. He teaches at the University of St. Andrews. Jim Shepard is the author of several novels and short story collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway which won The Story Prize in 2007. Jim is on the faculty at Williams College and works with emerging writers at various writers’ conferences including Bread Loaf and Sirenland. Rick Moody is the author of many books, including the contemporary classics The Ice Storm and Purple America. His teaching credits include Bennington College and New York University.


I’ll begin with admitting a certain bias here: I feel that who I am as a writer is traceable to mentorship. I would say that my experience with Zsuzsi is not the warm-and-fuzzy-grandma’s-cookies kind of encouragement. I’ve often referred to Zsuzsi as an exacting track coach who believes you can run the distance under 10, so you strive to do it. She seemed to have a sense of what you can do, so you want to accomplish it.

Rick, you wrote an interesting essay for The Atlantic on teaching versus mentorship in the creative writing world. Can you tell us about your experience with mentors versus teachers? And how that influences the way you treat the emerging writers you encounter?

Rick Moody: My experience of mentorship was much more confined to the undergraduate than graduate experience—in part that has to do with the way MFA and writing programs at the graduate level in the United States are based, which is kind of uniformly a workshop model.

My undergraduate experience was very different from that. The people I had at Brown in the early ’80s were so far out from that conventional workshop model—people like John Hawkes, who I think Jim Shepherd also had, and Angela Carter. Hawkes and Carter were remarkable in their willingness to intervene personally in the instruction of their students at all times.

So I would say the difference for me is not whether the instructor is warm and fuzzy or exacting and stern—the difference is whether there’s a personal intervention or not. And at Columbia, where I got my MFA, the program was really technocratic to some degree. It has a lot to do with where Columbia is in Manhattan, and the fact that most of the people that taught there had to take the train and were eager to leave when they were done. The shorter version for me is that people who teach undergraduate writers are often more emotionally engaged. And at least for me the sign above all other signs of mentorship is emotional engagement with the development of the students.

Jim, you also studied at Brown. Did you have the same kinds of experiences and influencers that Rick did. And now you teach at Williams College where you largely work with undergraduates.

Jim Shepard: Yeah, I would agree with Rick. With the one difference that I encountered Angela and Jack as a graduate student at Brown, but they, yes, they did intervene in the lives of those writers whose work they believed in. That emotional connection of modeling not only a way to write, but a way to be, seemed absolutely crucial.

Not only did they make themselves available outside the classroom, but they would also suggest to you—in ways that were quite reorienting—how pained they were that you hadn’t read certain things. There were so many wonderful moments when Jack would say to me, “So you’re a huge fan of Nabokov, have you read everything?” And I would say no, and he looked at me so pained that I immediately went off to the library and thought what kind of human being am I?

But Rick is right, in that the graduate experience is more Darwinian. But it just so happens that the people I encountered in graduate school were much more useful to me.

How do you carry over those experiences you had being mentored or taught when you’re dealing with people who come to your workshops. Do you see yourself as a teacher and a mentor?

Jim: I think of myself as both. As Rick said, mentorship in a lot of ways involves a connection to the whole person. I think we make ourselves available to the people who are the most promising and engaged in what they’re doing and those who are the most desirous in some ways of needing all that needs to be learned.

They would also suggest to you—in ways that were quite reorienting—how pained they were that you hadn’t read certain things. There were so many wonderful moments when Jack would say to me, “So you’re a huge fan of Nabokov, have you read everything?” And I would say no, and he looked at me so pained that I immediately went off to the library and thought what kind of human being am I?

John, you came out of an established career in computers. Did you have any mentors in your development as a writer?

John Burnside: No, not at all, I worked completely in isolation. I did study English as part of my first degree, then I did computer systems for ten years, and in that time I started writing. But I wasn’t even part of a workshop. I was just somebody sitting in a room treating it as a hobby. I ended up doing what writers here tend to do, which is drift into something academic. I came to St. Andrews University to teach literature, but part of the job is also teaching creative writing, undergrads and post-grads.

There are elements of mentoring in the relationship now, but it doesn’t appear to be at the level people are talking about here. There is a temptation to engage at that level, but it seems it would be unjust to engage with some people that way if you can’t engage with everyone. There are exceptions, it doesn’t happen with every student.

Zsuzsi, you’re the only writer here with writers you’ve actually mentored. What do you think is the difference between teaching and mentoring?

Zsuzsi: I think in mentoring there’s this idea of favoritism. In Rick’s piece that he wrote for The Atlantic he said Jack Hawkes played favourites, which was bad. But I just finished reading a book called Against Fairness. I don’t agree with everything in the book, and it’s not so much against fairness but in defense of favoritism, and it talks about why it is good as a value in society. When the author talks specifically about mentorship, he says many forms of favoritism are helpful to education, favourite teachers motivate students, favourite students motivate teachers… mentors who are allowed to choose their protégés are not just discriminating but carefully judging whether their special knowledge and skills can be safely entrusted to this person…

I think you can be a really good teacher, but a mentor is someone, as Rick says, who takes a personal interest in the writer’s work, but also them as a person. The relationship begins as a formal one—someone is paying to take a class—but when it becomes mentorship is when the mentor or the teacher shifts, and you’re doing more because you want to; this person is a future member of the writing tribe and you think it’s really important to get their writing out there and their work speaks to you.

Sarah, teaching is what many of us do to survive while we write our books. But even before you published your first collection you were developing yourself as a creative writing teacher. You developed a comprehensive online program but you also taught face-to-face. It seems to be a large part of who you are, can you tell me what it is about teaching/mentoring you identify so strongly with?

Sarah Selecky: I started teaching before I published anything, and before I met Zsuzsi, and before I’d been taught anything about writing myself. Now when I look back I ask, “What did I think I was doing?” I came to it way back then because I’d read books that had inspired me like Writing Down the Bones [by Natalie Goldberg], which I read at 19.

I wasn’t teaching at first, I was just part of groups writing together. Then it slowly became facilitating, and then as I eventually started working with some excellent writing teachers in undergrad, and then when I met Zsuzsi—it sort of blasted out what I thought teaching was, and then I just started doing it. Looking back now, I would never think I could have built my life that way. I didn’t know what I was doing but it became the way I learned how to write. And learning how to articulate what was going in my students’ stories helped me figure out what was going on in my stories.

[pagebreak]It’s clear from the people you cite as influences, that you saw your work develop as a result of these relationships with teachers and mentors.

Sarah: It’s the emotional connection that Rick was talking about. I can’t say that in the first years of working together [with Zsuzsi] I felt that closeness, but I felt it after I passed a certain turning point in my writing. You weren’t with me at all times and places, though Zsuzsi; literally, we were across the country.

Jim: I think Rick and I would probably suggest that Jack [Hawkes] would be floored to hear he was with us at all times, in that kind of way… [laughs] other than lodged in our psyche. In terms of what Jack and I knew about each others’ lives it was smaller than you might think. I think the kind of emotional connection that we’re talking about is the central importance about some crucial thing, but nothing like a comprehensive understanding. After I graduated I got to know Jack better, and had a kind of friendship like the one you’re talking about. But before that it was quite discreet.

Rick: There’s a way that the John Hawkes mentorship model lodged in my unconscious and stuck. Jack was actually a prickly and difficult person in many ways—not a “let me come over to your house for dinner” guy. And that gets to the deeper question of what are the moral contours of this mentorship model? In fact, it absolutely was free of banter and personal interaction, I would say.

Jack made very rigid boundaries in certain areas and that was absolutely on the plus side of the ledger. It goes without saying, but it’s worth saying, if this mentorship thing is going to work, and you’re going to have sway in the student’s academic life, it’s important that there’s absolute non-intervention—and I’m not only speaking of certain psycho-sexual interventions, but a certain kind of personal-ness.

I remember one day I was taking the train to visit my girlfriend at Yale and I got about an hour into the ride when I looked up and realized Angela Carter had been sitting in the seat behind me for the entire ride. And she had very carefully and very generously not taken me up on the possibility of talking. It was not that she was panicking, and thought she had to talk to me, it was “I know the parameters of our relationship and when not required I’m not going to intervene.” This is a person who I loved deeply and stayed in contact with until she died. But there was a real sense of when non-intervention was a generous thing. The same with Jack. Jack would, as Jim described, get up in my face about things, but they were all primarily literary things. It was never personal.

In today’s institutionalized world it seems the number one place people can go to find a mentor is the university. What’s the likelihood today that a really great mentorship could be found another way?

Jim: Yes, writers’ conferences in general are exploding. They’re not only a profitable ponzi scheme but they’re a way that writers who can’t attend MFAs can locate writers that they admire and want to talk to, and can at least put themselves in that position and engage. And again, there is a kind of favoritism that goes on. If you take on 15 students you can’t keep in constant contact with all of them once you leave.

Sarah: I think about this a lot, the way I describe it, and I didn’t find Zsuzsi through my MFA. I didn’t go and get an MFA to learn how to write. I got my MFA because my mentor said, “I’m teaching here you should come.” When my students ask, “How do I find a mentor?” I say they should just be a charged particle in the atmosphere and be sure they’re working at their best level. And then go out and go to workshops and be there to meet people, because mentors are looking for mentees.

I think illiteracy is a much bigger worry than contamination. You know, I’ll say to my students, “If you’re really interested in this, you should read some Kafka,” and they’ll say, “I worry I’ll be too influenced.” I say, “You should be so lucky.”

Zsuzsi: Can I be contradictory? Are the mentors looking for mentees? [Laughter] I don’t think I sought a mentee in my life. In today’s world young people are being told to find mentors. It doesn’t seem to me it works like that. A mentor has to choose you, it’s organic.

John: Can I be all British here? There’s a different perspective over here. The other thing that is kind of alarming about this idea of mentor is you might be into something that could last a lifetime… and I want to put the idea out there that we can find mentors outside some sort of institutional structures.

I think sometimes people might give you feedback from a different walk of life. I’ve done collaborative work with scientists and painters. I’ve treated them as my mentor for that time, which is separate from a teaching relationship. And maybe there’s something about us uptight Brits that worries us about the mentor thing if it’s too formalized or too institutional…

Zsuzsi: Or too touchy-feely?

John: There’s another question that comes up when you talk about that. I don’t know what the demographics are for people over there, but here most of my post-graduate writing students are female, like 90 percent in some years. And there is that other thing—what the relationship between a male and female is surrounded by, and those two people might not feel anything about it, but it’s surrounded by a sense of nasty possibilities.

I recently read James Lasdun’s beautiful book [Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked] about being stalked by a student. It wasn’t the usual scenario where you gave them a bad grade and they come after you, he actually encouraged this woman in her work and was very professional, and then off he went having felt that he had helped someone get further in what they were doing. Two years later, this woman turned up again and this long process of stalking him began. Cyber stalking him, making threats to his wife, and going onto Amazon and reviewing his books and calling him a pervert. If you knew James Lasdun, he’s the furthest person from the kind of lecherous college don… and this is the kind of thing that can happen with a mentor relationship, which was misunderstood on one side. This was a rare event obviously, but institutions are kind of looking for that stuff all the time.

What are the responsibilities of the mentor? Rick, you talked about life lessons from writers who were very completing mentors but also flawed and human. What is it that a mentor should be bringing?

Rick: It would be great to enumerate all those things but I think it would be a mistake. I think the content of mentorship is not a specific laundry list so much as it is the value of that human exchange. I think the human exchange transforms people. What John was just talking about, the problem with the stalker, is a manifest possible outcome because a lot of people who want to go into writing or who imagine they do, are mentally ill. And that’s true of many instructors too.

So there’s the possibility that this thing can go awry but that doesn’t mean that we ought not continue to find a model that finds a complete engagement with one human being and another that does not contain some sort of psycho-sexual outcomes. I think real information gets transmitted. This is why I often think some kinds of digital age pedagogical approaches can’t get as close as the mere fact of two people sitting in a room talking about literature. Let us insist on the mere fact of the human in a pedagogical context.

Jim, When you look at young and emerging writers do you get a sense from their work what they’re capable of?

Jim: Well, first of all, one of the luxuries that Jack and Angela had, that favoritism—I don’t have that option here at Williams. The students that come here expect and want a huge amount of attention. Everybody is at a very early stage in their writing so what I’m responding to is flashes of ability. I’m often reacting to the very sort of rudimentary first indications that something can be wonderful. It’s different than a MFA program, but the students do end up producing some fantastic work.

What about you Rick, is there something you see in an emerging writer that triggers something in you?

Rick: Any teacher regardless of his or her obligation to teach to the whole class, engages in some ways with the students who are most engaged to be there. At the end of the day, in my experience, the people who became writers became writers not because of talent but because of drive. Talent is secondary. You often find through the course of your semesters you’re wrong, it’s really the long-term trajectory of students that is the most interesting. So the student who you thought was the most gifted at first, is not the student of most interest in week 14.

Jim: As with all human interactions, you just need to stay open to surprise.

There seems to be a recurring cynicism in how writers should just raise themselves up by working by themselves and forget about other influences, which seems ridiculous to me. But there is this question of contamination. If Sue studies with Bob then is all of Sue’s work going to look like Bob’s?

Jim: I think illiteracy is a much bigger worry than contamination. You know, I’ll say to my students, “If you’re really interested in this, you should read some Kafka,” and they’ll say, “I worry I’ll be too influenced.” I say, “You should be so lucky.” [Laughter]

John: I find that with poets. I was giving feedback to people through the mail for this organization and I would ask people, “What contemporary poets do you like?” and I would get things like “William Blake.” Or statements like, “I don’t read any contemporary poetry because I don’t want to be tainted by it.” Or “all contemporary poetry is rubbish; I want to write like Byron.”

I had a student once who said to me, “You know I really must read your work after I’m finished this course.” I said, “Well, don’t feel obliged,” and she said, “Well I didn’t want to read it before I worked with you because I didn’t want you to have too much influence on me.” What a strange idea.

Zsuzsi: I’ve been influenced by a huge amount of writers. I was hugely influenced by you Rick, by the beginning of Purple America, and a lot of my students were as well. They are influenced by you, Jim, and Rick and George Saunders, and moving through that influence. I think the idea of influence is fantastic.

Jim: The most powerful moment of influence, which I think you described, is when the writer says, “Is this allowed?”

Sarah: Zsuzsi had this exercise where she had us trying to write in the voice of George Saunders. She actively wanted us to write in the voice of someone else.

Zsuzsi: Somebody you love.

Sarah: I actually didn’t love the particular story [you were using]. Zsuzsi, you told me, “You’re not going to love this story, it has a lot of exposition in it, you’re not going to like this at all.”

Zsuzsi: I don’t remember this at all.

Sarah: You gave it to me and said, “You’re going to hate this. It’s nothing like what you do.” I went home, and the assignment was to rewrite the beginning and end. And I, because I was pissed off, I was like “I’m going to write this story that Zsuszi doesn’t think I can do, I’m going to go into exposition”—it was a bit of a “fuck you.” The exercise of doing that, trying to copy it, showed me what I could actually do with my sentences. Trying to be utterly original will ultimately result in derivative work. Being mindful of what you’re doing will transcend it.

Zsuzsi: I had a workshop this summer and I asked a room of people what their favourite short story was, and three people said “A Rose for Emily” by Faulkner. Some couldn’t even name one. So I immediately say to anyone in short fiction, how can you write in a genre if you haven’t immersed yourself in it? I wanted them to be ashamed. I’m pained by it. So the fact that you could be contaminated is ludicrous but so many emerging writers seems to have this idea.

[pagebreak]Mentorship is an intense experience for the person being mentored. I’m wondering if you have advice as to how emerging writers move beyond the mentorship to work independently?

Sarah: I’m hesitant to jump in because this is new for me. I mean, I wrote my stories for Zsuzsi, I always thought of what would she think, and now I’m writing without it. It’s weird.

Jim: Having Zsuzsi in your head is what Rick and I were talking about in our experience with Jack [Hawkes]. It’s not so much that he needs to be there—it’s not running things by him—but when you write something now you think, “Oh, I know exactly what Jack would think of this.” And I know why he called me to be a better version of myself because I’m still not living up to it.

That’s how I felt. I was never being asked to be someone else, but a better version of myself.

Rick: I was going to say there’s a simple version of that is “You kill the mentor” idea. For all this about Jack Hawkes being permanently lodged in my unconscious, which is true, there’s the sense that at a certain developmental point I realized I was going to grow and individuate. There’s a moment in apprenticeship when you transcend it, when you locate your voice and it no longer sounds like influence. There comes a moment where, strictly speaking, parts of that mentorship are no longer useful to you and you’re free to move beyond.

All of you are creating a legacy through your writing either intentionally or unintentionally. Do you think about what lasting effects you’ve left? Not just through the people who’ve read your work and been influenced, but also by the people you’ve directly mentored? Do you think about what that contribution will be over time and how you’d like to be remembered?

Zsuzsi: I haven’t thought about it Miranda. I look at the little stack of books from my students and I think, “Wow, that’s all great stuff.” But I guess I just don’t think of it further than that.

Jim: Yeah, there’s a way in which thinking of it in that way seems to be already pronouncing some sort of benediction on what you’ve done.

Zsuzsi: I feel like I haven’t achieved enough in my own writing, like when I think of Rick and Jim here, and other writers. So, I just feel like, “God, if I had 10 more decades,” as far as my own writing goes.

John: Maybe the best response to what we were talking about earlier, moving on from a mentorship, is to paraphrase that Dire Straights song “Romeo and Juliet.” You know, “Oh Romeo, yeah, you know I used to have this thing with him.” Maybe your mentee should be saying, “Oh John, I used to have a thing with him.” You know, moving on to somewhere else and having that long distance, far away affection kind of thing.

Jim: I wondered when Dire Straights was going to make an entrance here.


Zsuszi: I think the one thing I’ve done that I’m proud of through all the UBC workshops is create better readers. By introducing writers to other writers, there’s a better appreciation for what the possibilities of the short story are.

Jim: That’s also the best response I can give when people come up with that semi-annual complaint about “Are we training too many writers?” It’s not that we’re churning out thousands of writers that are in turn going to go out and be penniless. What we’re doing is teaching people to be better readers. And God knows we could use more of those.

Rick: I think I’m over the 20-year mark as a teacher now, and I’ve had such various feelings about it over the years. There were times in the ’90s when I definitely felt I was teaching to the pay cheque, and I’ve totally altered my attitude about it in the last few years. I’ve sort of made this—for lack of a better word—spiritual decision about the work in the classroom: that I want to feel at the end of the day that I’m giving to it creatively the same way I’m giving to my work.

So I’ve just decided that this slightly adolescent attitude I had about it before no longer has a place in what I do in the classroom. Now I go into the classroom feeling that I really want to make a mark on these people, one that is precisely of the character that Jim’s talking about, that they emerge from this class more interested in, and better equipped to care about, what literature is and how it’s constructed.

I honestly feel like—while it would be cheating and too goal-oriented to say that I want that to be part of my legacy, whatever that means—I do absolutely feel that I want my teaching project to have the kind of endurance and lasting quality that my writing project does. And I kind of feel good, because there now is a stack of books by people who have come out of my class, there are six, seven, or eight and sometimes multiple books by people who’ve come out of my class. I feel uniformly and incredibly excited by that work. I don’t want to sound in anyway un-humble about it, but when I wake up in the middle of the night certain that life is “nasty, brutish and short,” one thing that helps me feel redeemed is that stack of books by my students.

Jim: That sounds like a nice place to end.

Miranda Hill is the author of the story collection Sleeping Funny (Doubleday Canada, 2012). She is a graduate of the Optional Residency MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia and a recipient of the Writers' Trust of Canada / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. Hill lives and writes in Hamilton, Ontario where she also runs the Canadian literary charity Project Bookmark Canada.