Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Portrait of the Writer as a Mentor

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A Portrait of the Writer as a Mentor

The sometimes smarmy but talented British novelist Martin Amis was asked in an interview if he felt he was a guiding influence or mentor for young writers. He commented, after explaining that this teacher-protégé relationship appeared to be something of an antique, that “we seem to be going it alone these days.”

Indeed, we may be connecting through social media and talking at one other more frequently, we may even have more opportunities to join online workshops and critique groups, but have we lost this old school idea of the older artist taking the younger artist under his or her wing?

Ray Carver wrote a touching essay about his teacher, John Gardner, in his 1984 book 'Fires'. The essay explored the importance of those good and strong influences in our development as writers. Carver counted Gardner (who penned several superb books about the art and craft of writing) among his chief influencers, even more so than the editor Gordon Lish (who went on to claim he had “created” Carver’s famous spare style).

“It was his (Gardner’s) experience – and it has been mine, in my role as a teacher of creative writing – that certain aspects of writing can be taught and handed over to other, usually younger, writers,” wrote Carver. “This idea shouldn’t come as a surprise to any person seriously interested in education and the creative act. Most good or even great conductors, composers, microbiologists, astronomers, or fighter pilots, learned their business from older and more accomplished practitioners.”

I’ve had few good teachers who left a mark on my writing. There was my Grade 13 Lit teacher (back when we had Grade 13), Elizabeth Voroney, who gave me a copy of Gibran’s 'The Prophet' (need I say more?), and encouraged my meagre abilities. The poet, essayist, novelist and York U professor B.W. Powe still speaks to me when I sit to write or, more importantly, when I sit to re-write. He drilled home the importance of maintaining a high-performance engine at the heart of my writing, a real pulse, to ensure, as he said in his Beat-poet language, that the whole enterprise has “a swing and a groove”. Where is it all headed, he would ask. Do you really feel there is enough here to sustain a novel-length work? What are you trying to say, man? Does each passage move the story along in some way? These are the questions I still ask myself.

One of my favorite aspects of attending writer’s conferences is the opportunity it presents to chat with other writers about tricks of the trade. They, in turn, pass along the sage wisdom they’ve been given by so-and-so, and our chain link continues to grow and reach across the generations. You sometimes get the feeling there is a very competitive nature about writers (that’s a joke, by the way), and we tend to hold several cards to our chest or up our sleeve. But I’ve been fortunate to find not only a supportive local group of fellow-suffering-scribes in my city, but very early on was sort of ‘taken under wing’ by a few veterans who shared the whole truth and nothing but the truth about this crazy game.

I do try to give back to younger writers at every opportunity; I answer questions when asked, for example. There is a sense that any pain and suffering and bloodshed that I have endured or inflicted in the pursuit of this endeavour will somehow not have been in vain if I can spare some other doe-eyed writer the same. As someone who has always and necessarily learned things the hard way, I suppose I can spare a lot of needless head banging and wasted postage.

“A young writer certainly needs as much, I would even say more, encouragement than young people trying to enter other professions,” Carver wrote from his own raw experience. “Failure and dashed hopes are common to us all. The suspicion that we’re taking on water and that things are not working out in our life the way we’d planned hits most of us at some time or another.”

The publishing and retail worlds, and by extension our writing world, is undergoing the most significant transformations since the invention of the printing press. Despite all sorts of pronouncements and predictions from experts and soothsayers, nobody has a clue what comes next or what it will mean to our craft and trade in the long run.

Oh writing and reading will survive, of that there can be no doubt. But if ever there was a time for banding together, for fostering a spirit of artistic solidarity, it is now. If you are an accomplished writer, ask yourself how you can give back to those who will follow. If you’re a young writer, seek out every opportunity to learn from the masters – and listen, really listen.

It is our shared duty – perhaps our solemn oath – to ensure those who will follow don't miss out on any of the angst, self-doubt, magic, beauty and wonder that we know.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest is the author of the literary crime novels The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil.

Go to C.B. Forrest’s Author Page