“He ate the entire apple—core, seeds, and all,” said the young man in red pants and black high tops. “I do that, too. I knew he could become my mentor.”
Gathered in a nook of the Johnson Library at Hampshire College, March 7, an audience of people eager to hear about writing mentorship listened as Polina Barskova, Sabina Murray, Rachel Conrad, and Jeff Parker talked about the book co-edited by Parker and novelist Annie Liontas: A Manner of Being: Writers on their Mentors.
Parker opened the conversation by sharing that the idea for this collection of more than seventy essays by writers on their mentors came from the notion that mentoring young writers is only in part about passing down wisdom and knowledge and that another part, perhaps the most important part, is apprenticeship in a certain “manner of being.”
To explain this “manner of being,” Parker shared a story from George Saunders‘s contribution. Standing at a reception, a young writer shared a personal story with Saunders that was so grueling that he wanted to run away. He observed, however, that his mentor, Douglas Unger, listened with rapt attention and obvious concern. Unger let the person have full say of the disturbing incident without interruption and then offered affirmation and support. And Saunders did what he had so often done in his apprenticeship under Unger, did his best to emulate him.
Murray elaborated on what “support” can mean. She said, “Apple guy knew he could trust his mentor because they ate apples the same way. So he could believe his mentor when he said, ‘Look, this is not an apple. This is an orange. And you need to peel an orange in order to eat it.’” A mentor, she said, sometimes needs to care enough to say—kindly—this section is not helping your story, you need to change it.
When asked if a mentor needs to be a good writer, Barskova told us about her teacher, “the bald, well-wrinkled man with the alcoholic nose and the lively eyes of a raccoon.” She knew he was a poet, she said, but he was not a particularly compelling poet. “His real gift,” she said, “was to find the gifts in others, like geologists do with their minerals—hidden in the deep dark soil.”
And that is how mentorship becomes a reciprocal relationship, the speakers agreed, each participant growing and learning from the other. Parker told us that George Saunders’s mentors “helped Saunders grow into a better version of himself, more dignified and less selfish.” In his turn, Parker hopes he too has begun to model a manner of being.
Chosen as one of the Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Manner of Being: Writers on their Mentors, edited by Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker is available from the University of Massachusetts Press.