Monday, June 14, 2010


Recently, looking for writing contests, I found one which actually discouraged some writers from entering. The instructions suggested that writers who have had quite a bit of exposure, say, more than one book published, should choose not to enter, but should do make room for newcomers. Specifically, it was suggested that more experienced authors should mentor a beginning writer.

Most of the younger writers I've met in recent years don't need a mentor so much as they need encouragement and time. They're on the right track; they just need to keep going. Other aspiring writers want things from me that I can't supply, such as an introduction to an agent who will lead them to a major publisher. One beginning writer had the nerve to e-mail me a thinly disguised pitch to take over my books column in Forever Young.

The funny thing about mentors is that you don't always recognize them as mentors right away. The ideal mentor, I suppose, is a well-educated, voracious reader/successful writer who makes insightful comments and has good connections. I've received help from a couple of writers in residence who fit this description, and I currently have a mentor and friend who is well educated and a great reader who has been very kind to me.

I've shied away from other would-be mentors, like the relative who said she'd like to edit my work and the wife of a colleague who quoted cliches about writing at me. Neither of these ladies had ever put pen to paper except for writing required at work. Then there was the good Christian woman writer who told me she admired my telent but didn't like what I wrote. (Hers was not an educated palate.)

One of my very best mentors was a retired carpenter who left school in his early teens back in the 1930s. He was a young retiree who had signed up for one of my writing courses, and when he learned that I had one of those new-fangled devices, a home computer, he wondered if I would type some of his personal essays and poems - for pay, of course. To Victor (his middle name), work was work, whether it was typing a poem or building a house, and workers should be paid.

Victor's attitude was what made him valuable as a mentor. Those who knew him in his last few years, after his wife's death, might be incredulous to read that I admired his attitude, for some found him a cantankerous old geezer. Indeed, he was like the father in Dylan Thomas's well-known villanelle; he "did not go gentle into that good night", but "raged against the dying of the light."

When I met Victor he had already taken many courses in drawing and painting, and had developed his talents in these areas. He had a natural gift for storytelling, a love of words, and a good command of English. As well, he was convinced that anyone could learn to write or produce woodcrafts or paint, if he or she had the urge to do so, and was willing to put in the hours to learn the skill. He was sure that his stories about growing up in Ottawa West and rural Renfew County during the Great Depression were of historical value as well as being entertaining. Towards the end of his life when a local historian included some of his writing in a collection, his belief in himself was affirmed.

Victor did not tolerate rejection. He sought out people who might publish his work and found one in the editor of a rural magazine (now out of print). He entered contests where he had a good chance of winning. Just a few years ago, he invited my husband and myself to an open-mike session at a hotel in a small town outside Ottawa. I had some misgivings, as the participating poets were all young people, but he charmed them. When a local publisher rejected Victor's collection of articles, he published them in small booklets that my husband and I produced as a truly desk-top endeavour.

As well as being a mentor, Victor was a father figure to me. Toward the end of his life, though, it became sadly apparent that I really wasn't family. Victor had had a happy marriage to a wonderful woman who was the glue that held the family together. When she was gone, things no longer ran smoothly for him. It wasn't my place, and I lacked the resources, to help him make arrangements when he couldn't continue on at home. My attempts to come up with solutions fell short of the mark. His greatest need came at a time when I faced other demands from other parts of my life. During his last illness he made it clear that he felt I'd failed him.

Now that Victor has been gone a couple of years, I look back on our twenty year friendship with more happy memories than sad ones. I remember how his friendship enriched my life. Victor never once suggested that I should be doing something with my time other than writing. He read one of my novels in manuscript form, made useful suggestions, and praised the technical logistical details of one key scene which I'd worried about. Best of all, when he dropped in to discuss one of his booklets or to have some typing done, he stayed for coffee and a chat about a wide range of subjects. He left behind wonderful poems celebrating the natural world. The glimpse of a deer in a clearing, or a chickadee feeding in a tree in my yard makes me think of him.

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