Literary Hook: Tips for looking for a writing coach or mentor

Lately, I have been asked about the mentoring process, either in classes that I teach, in residencies or by people who call me with inquiries. They want to know what writing coaches and mentors actually do.

I can speak only for myself and share what I do when I mentor or coach another writer. If you decide to seek a mentor by going to a conference, taking a workshop with an established writer, or working by correspondence with a writer, perhaps this article will give you a little perspective.

I have been a writing mentor in one way or another for 35 years: as a creative writing teacher, as an editor of various journals and anthologies, as a workshop leader at conferences, women’s centers, libraries and retreats. For a decade, I have held a successful poetry salon in my home that has helped poets hone and expand their craft and understanding of poetry and publishing. I have worked with many poets by mail, creating a one-on-one working dialogue.

As a poetry “seeker and student,” I worked for a year with Lucien Stryk at Northern Illinois University and another year with Lynda Hull at the Vermont Writers’ Program. At conferences, I have worked with poets such as Robert Bly and Lisel Mueller. I have been on both sides of mentoring, and learned a great deal from it.

As a mentor, I bring these experiences as well as years of writing, publishing, enthusiasm for the process, and discipline to the table. I especially enjoy working one-and-one by mail because it affords more time to really study and think about the poetry that has been sent. It allows for a comprehensive process that includes the following:

reading the poem for its initial impact;

re-reading the poem for subtle strategies, word choice, musicality, form, etc.;

having enthusiasm for the poem and the poet’s process;

commenting about what is really working well in the poem;

suggesting places where a little tweaking might help;

examining if any re-arrangement might lend energy to the poem;

suggesting other poets and poetry manuals to read for inspiration and study;

suggesting literary magazines that might be appropriate to examine or try;

answering questions through written dialogue; and

offering encouragement and support!

I do not believe in telling other writers whether they “have it” or that my “lens” is the only lens. I start by assessing where I think the poet is in his or her journey and what kind of feedback would most help them.

I find joy and satisfaction in the process. If you are thinking of working with a writing coach, you might want to interview the writer first to make sure you’re “on the same page” (literally and figuratively). A good match is essential to the process.

You need to remember that no matter how well established a writer is, there is only so much that writer can do for you. The discipline and courage are up to you. The mentor cannot create anything in you that wasn’t already there, nor can the mentor guarantee success or open the doors for publishing. The energy it takes to see a writing project through will ultimately be your own energy. A mentor/coach is a guide, but not a miracle worker.

So, if you are in the market for a writing coach or mentor, I hope these comments will give you the perspective you need in making your choice.

from the Aug 15-21, 2007, issue

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