On Choosing Your Mentors

Several years ago, when I was applying for graduate school admissions, I visited a former English professor asking for a letter of recommendation. We had a nice meeting, and during our chat, he made a remark about his students that was puzzling enough, to me, to have made an indelible impression: “All of the English majors now want to be writers, but almost none of them want to READ.” 

We smirked at one another and shook our heads. To this day, he remains one of the best writing mentors I’ve ever had. I respect the man not because he helped me learn to become a better writer and a more discriminating reader, but most of all, because he taught me how to think critically. I tell this story because it highlights, for those of us who are creative, the importance of continually engaging in activities that allow us to hone our craft, whether we have real life, flesh-and-blood “mentors,” or not. 

We must always have mentors, in the form of our predecessors and our contemporaries, from whose work we can glean valuable, teachable insights into our own. Selecting those from whom we learn, regardless of our individual passions, can be challenging. Here are some thoughts on the importance of choosing mentors and a few ideas that may prove helpful in picking and using them wisely.

Go for the good, the bad, and the ugly. But focus on the good.

It took me a long time to realize that I could learn from bad writers, just as I could from literary masters. Indeed, we can take lessons from those whose work we don’t like, or consider sub-par. The most influential of those lessons, I think, comes from understanding why we don’t like them. Knowing what, specifically, about their work we find lacking, awkward, or unappealing can help us gain valuable insights into our own sensibilities. It can be a tremendously helpful exercise in self-awareness and, more obviously, in learning what not to do.

It would, of course, be foolish of me to suggest that any of us spend as much time learning from those whose works falls short of our standards as we do studying masters. The more time we spend exposing ourselves to the right influences, the better we will be. While I prefer to subject myself to an array of influences, I spend a great deal more time with those for whom I have reverence. 

Don’t deify anyone.

This point may seem self-evident, but I do think it bears mentioning that we shouldn’t become so enamored by those who inspire us that we fail to see them as they actually are (or were). Both these individuals and their work deserve to be examined honestly and critically. History sometimes makes this challenging, as does the way some prominent figures are introduced to us in academic settings, which is often quite skewed. It can be easy, in looking to mentors for creative guidance, to become so impressed by their authority and prestige, and even emotionally affected by their work, that we forget they aren’t (or weren’t) infallible. And we don’t have to agree with them on everything. 

For me, as for many, I’m sure, politics and religion are nearly always where my views split with many mentors.’ Even those I respect the most. And that’s okay. When our views are irreconcilable, I take from them what lessons I can and leave the rest behind.

Don’t be a copycat.

I once had a classmate tell me he wanted to write like Charles Dickens. Naturally, I found this to be a curious statement. I assumed initially that he meant he was inspired by Dickens, or that he wished he could achieve a level of success similar to the author’s. I was wrong. The young man went on to explain that he habitually tried to write both creative and non-creative pieces (e.g., term papers) in a Dickensian style.

Baffled, I asked him, “Why?” 

He explained that he preferred Dickens’s voice to his own and felt his time was better spent trying to mimic it rather than cultivating what came naturally. I was stunned–for many reasons.

I can’t imagine enjoying anything about the writing process if I constantly had to fake my voice. What, then, would be the point? Where would be the satisfaction?

In my view, mentors aren’t meant to be emulated. Not fully. Not like that. When we stifle what comes to us naturally just because we think someone else does it, or has already done it, better, we are denying our gifts. Trust that what you have been given is good enough, and work to make the very best of it, instead of wishing you could trade it in for something else.

5 thoughts on “On Choosing Your Mentors

  1. My friend was the first woman to chair the AFI. American Film Institute, she would sit with me. Ask me questions. It felt a lot like a Q & A except I didn’t try to be anything less than genuine. She graduated Harvard, I didn’t and that was fine for us. I think she chose me if, that makes sense.


  2. That’s true about learning from what you like and what you don’t like. I write a lot of film reviews, and I found that I couldn’t understand what my favorite movie did right until I studied other films that didn’t work as well.


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