Several weekends ago, I attended “Like a Boss,” a panel discussion hosted by Emily Books to celebrate their February book pick, Sempre Susan by Sigrid Nunez, a book whose subject is the simultaneously growth-and-strife-inducing relationship between the Nunez and legendary author and intellectual Susan Sontag.
But the event had a bigger theme than this single book. Its focus was the wider subject of mentorship. The lineup of Heidi Julavits, co-editor of The Believer; novelist and teacher Alexander Chee; Cookstr.com founder Will Schwalbe; and Doree Shafrir, digital journalist (currently of Buzzfeed), formed a group of professionals from the full spectrum of literary business: journalism, teaching, authorship, publishing, and entrepreneurship. The moderator was Emily Gould herself, co-founder of Emily Books and author of And the Heart Says Whatever. The majority of the conversation revolved around the participants’ own varied experiences of mentorship, and a few of their smart and useful pearls of wisdom are presented here.
How to Have a Mentor
Doree Shafrir observed that for many “digital professionals” there’s no one older whose career-path can serve as a practical model. BUT, she emphasized, this doesn’t rule out mentorship. Some of her most important mentors were peers, co-workers blazing their own path right beside her. And why not? Mentorship is just as much about council and encouragement as about “treading the path already trodden.”
Will Schwalbe: “A mentor is not someone who picks a ‘mini-me’.” Speaking of his own relationship with the man who was then CEO of William Morrow, Schwalbe insisted that it’s possible to find a great mentor who’s completely different from who you are or ever will be—a show of faith in a protégé’s work and generosity with time can work wonders.
To writers, Heidi Julavits and Alexander Chee advised finding an older, more established author who can help you find a sane way of navigating “the siren song of publishing”. Great editors and agents can be mentors in their own right, but a writerly mentorship is irreplaceable.
Is it ever OK to deliberately court a mentor? Absolutely, agreed the panelists. One even suggested writing to someone you admire—no matter how far-fetched it might be that they’ll take you up on it—and offer something that you can give them. The point isn’t that the offer will actually be accepted, but that offering something to a person of whom you would like to ask so much can be a beautiful and life-deepening experience.
How to BE a Mentor
If you’re interested in mentoring, one of the easiest steps to take is making sure you’re labeled as open to such contact in your alma mater’s alumnae/i network. Several of the panelists said they’ve formed excellent mentoring relationships with younger alums from their graduating institutions.
What if you would not recommend the career path you took, or some of the key choices you made along the way? The consensus seemed to be that you should use your own judgment, but my own experience has shown that a candid look at someone else’s “mistakes”, filtered through the distance of time and their own interpretation, can be worth its weight in gold.
If you feel yourself starting to slide into a mentoring role, ask yourself: what do I want in return? It may seem a boorish question, but let’s level: It’s a hectic world, and any one of us will be able to give our time consistently only if doing so feels rewarding. Good news: the rewards of mentorship can take as many different forms as the relationship itself, and the better you know what you want, the more you can give.
Chee observed how introducing one’s protégés to each other can spark new and fruitful relationships. (One of the best friendships I’ve formed in the past year sprang from an introduction at our shared mentor’s house). Chee’s said he’s scheming to have one giant party and invite all his mentees, giving them chance to meet and mingle on their own terms.
Remember that not every mentorship lasts for a lifetime. You may find your protégé no longer “needs” you in the capacity he or she once did. This is the point where possibilities for new friendship–built on the foundations of mentorship–open, an adventure that could occupy a whole conversation of its own.