by Dylan McKenna
What is a mentor? Definitions include: an experienced and trusted adviser; someone who shares with a mentee information about career paths; a person who provides guidance, motivation and role modeling. Depending on the context and relationship between parties, these descriptions all fit. I have experienced them at each step of my journey as a writer, but have not always taken full advantage. Had I done so, I’d probably be better off.
When I was in 11th grade I took whatever English class was required. Like other courses throughout my schooling, this class was basically comprised of practicing grammar, analyzing texts, and composing essays. But it was taught by a professor who gave me, like many of his other students, my first ever creative writing assignment: it was my first time writing fiction.
My story (a fantastical spec-ops thriller about my eccentric then-employer) went over quite well. Most found it funny, though no one was required to read it. It only came to their attention after our teacher brought it up; his interest in my writing sparked the interest of others. On top of the joy I experienced in creating characters and plots, this assignment opened doors to the world of fiction. It was my starting point and initial source of encouragement. My professor was experienced, and I trusted him. But given the high school environment, I didn’t speak with him about career paths or publication, or even meet with him outside of the classroom. And although I’d clearly been interested, writing was then for me a hobby and not a discipline. While my teacher was not exactly a mentor in the ways many people would define it, I still consider him a “ghost” mentor. That is to say, our collaboration was not very deep, but his presence was meaningful. He got me writing stories.
In college, my fiction professor ran things more seriously, and his comic personality not only reminded me of the man who got me writing in the first place, but connected with me personally. Our class met always in circles, received more writing assignments than the previous course, and held even more concentrated workshop meetings complemented by analyses of a wide range of texts. At the behest of our teacher, I met with other students outside of class to continue the conversation. He never used the word “mentor” as an offer of his time during office hours to discuss our work and plan career paths after graduation. Still, I did eventually accept his offers, and we met several times to talk about such things. However, I graduated from the program to move onto another in a new university, and we lost touch.
All of these people shaped my writing and helped me mature as a writer. But I never asked them to be my mentors. They were all ghost mentors to me, despite their incredible assistance. I never got the full package experience, so to speak. And that is because I, as student, did not pursue such relationships sufficiently. So, my advice to young writers already in academia is to take advantage of your resources: from office hours to clubs to free lectures, shows, talks, screenings, etc. A mentor is perhaps the most valuable in terms of growth. If a good one is available, and open to cooperation, it would truly be a waste not to at least propose this to him or her. People filled with knowledge and experience surround you in your academic environment, and to ignore them for the sake of saving yourself extra work is unwise—the work is why you’re there in the first place. Isn’t it?