Mentoring: Good or Bad?

I don’t want to wade into spec fic politics.  If you’re curious about the latest drama check out KKR’s post Business Musings: Controlling The Creatives and then wander your way over to the comments about the post on The Passive Voice.  (Pay special attention to Laura Resnick’s post that gives a good summary of the issue.)  And finally check out the Making Light post where this is discussed.

Honestly, reading all of this makes me think that as much as I love spec fic as a reader (it’s 90% of my bookshelves and 95% of what I’ve read since I read A Wrinkle In Time in first grade) I think I really hate it as a writer.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Today is about mentoring.  Because one of the things I noticed when I read that series of posts and went and looked at the slate of elected works is that a lot of very new writers are getting caught up in this.  And they’re doing so through their involvement with the Writers of the Future contest.

I’m not a posting member on the WOTF forums, but I’ve been reading them for three-plus years and I recognize a lot of those names.  Now, some seem to be actively involved in working with the more senior members of whatever this is and some I would say were just thrown on there out of familiarity with the parties in play.

But it led me back to a question I’ve been asking myself the last few years: is it good to have writing mentors?

You don’t see it right away, but a lot of the folks out there that offer classes or workshops are parts of larger groups that think a certain way about the speculative fiction genre and who belongs and who doesn’t and what writers should or shouldn’t write about.

And if you get “taken under the wing” of someone with strong views when you’re new and not able to see the full landscape, that can color your whole perception of the genre and writing in it.  Or it can paint you with a brush you don’t even know you’re being painted with through your association with certain parties who have developed very strong reputations through their years of writing.

It’s hard.  Because some of these new authors have been given incredibly opportunities by their mentors.  Co-writing stories.  Publication in magazines that are invite only.  Perhaps other paid work that lets them pursue their dreams of publication.

But there’s a trade-off.  Like new women writers assigned ridiculous pet names by their more senior male mentor.  Not that those who’ve received them seem to mind, but as an outsider watching events unfold I have to say that seeing a senior member of my genre who has already been accused of sexism mentoring young women new to the field and referring to them with silly little names that put them in a second-class position is distasteful to me.

So, is mentoring good?  Or is it bad?

The answer really boils down to the mentor and mentee.

My first job out of college was a job that required extensive on-the-job training.  For the first year you basically shadowed someone more senior than you to learn the ropes.  There were some educational materials and tests, too, but the majority of the training came from your mentor.

I was incredibly fortunate in the mentor I received.  I’m a bit of a go-getter, serious, get the job done kind of person.  And so was my mentor.  So I thrived under my mentor’s guidance.  And because of that mentor I was promoted early and given some opportunities that my peers were not.

At the same time, a close friend of mine also started at that company.  This person was just as intelligent and capable as I was.  But my friend was assigned to a mentor whose primary goal in life was to stay under the radar, do a good enough job, and not get fired for another ten years until they retired.  They didn’t do anything more than was required of them.  That mentor trained my friend to approach assignments the same way–don’t dig for more, just do what you’re told, keep your head down, and your mouth shut.

As a result, my friend moved along in the traditional time frame  and wasn’t given special opportunities.  Honestly, I think working with that mentor held that friend back from realizing their full potential.

Because of the difference in how we started our careers–something due in large part to our mentors–my friend and I ended up with very different career trajectories at our company.  Good mentoring gave me an extra boost that led to opportunities that led to fast promotions.  Bad mentoring held my friend back.  And the more years that passed, the bigger the gap.

(And this friend was highly capable.  They actually discovered an issue that no one else realized was an issue, but were squashed by their mentor.  A few years later someone else discovered the same issue and it became a HUGE thing.  Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to fix the issue.)

So, circling back to writing.  Is having a writing mentor good or bad?

I think that if you find someone more experienced who can lend a hand and provide opportunity and training that can be a fantastic boost to your career.  But, I think many new writers are young and vulnerable and don’t understand who they’re aligning themselves with until it’s too late to fix the damage done.  Either because of the mindset they absorb from their mentor or the stink of association that they can never quite lose.

The only advice I can offer is if you’re new, tread carefully, read widely, and be cautious who you let control or influence your writing career.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
This entry was posted in General Musings, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.