Blog # 32
On Mentors and Mentoring
This post, a tribute to a pioneer/mentor woven into a short essay about my personal writing/teaching history, is a departure of sorts from what you’ve previously seen on this blog.
Recently, a friend asked me to write an essay for her blog, an essay on mentors and mentoring--something that’s been on my mind ever since I posted “The Three Stupidest Things I’ve Done as a Writer” by Donald Murray (see Blog # 30 below). In that post, I mentioned how in the 70’s and 80’s Murray became my writing/teaching mentor. What I didn’t talk about was the contribution he made to the literary genre we’re now calling “Creative Nonfiction,” and how, as a result of his work, I became instrumental in the genre’s emergence and evolution.
A version of this essay appears on www.overmyshoulderfoundation.org
Dawn Caroll's Over My Shoulder website on/about mentors and mentoring. You can find it under Mentors Come When You're Ready For them, 7/14
A Writer Teaches Writing
We encounter our best and most influential mentors, I believe, when we’re ready to receive them. In my case, it happened shortly after I began teaching freshman composition. Back then, in the late 60’s, all comp teachers were required to plan their courses according to an outmoded, prescriptive, syllabus, a syllabus that required teachers to assign their writing students a series of what we used to call “papers:” among them, a narrative, a descriptive essay, an argument, an expository essay, a piece of literary analysis, and a final term paper based solely on library research. This method had been in place since the late nineteenth century. It was, to say the least, a narrow, wrong-headed view of what writing is all about. But back then, there was no other option.
Around that same time, I happened to come across a book, A Writer Teaches Writing, by a Donald Murray, someone, who I’d never heard of. In the book Murray was, in effect, advocating an inside/out approach to composing. I was immediately drawn to his philosophy. And it kick-started what would over time become my transformation from writing teacher to teaching writer.
Murray was one of the first writing teachers in this country to suggest that the teaching of writing (and literature) had been, for far too long, the exclusive territory of professional critics, researchers, and literature teachers--many of whom might admire writing and literature, but who themselves did not write.
We didn’t know it back then, but this was the beginning of what would evolve into both the writing process and teacher-as-writer movements, which, from the late 60’s to the early 90’s changed the way that introductory college writing was taught in this and in several other countries.
In addition, it’s my belief that Murray’s work sparked a renewed interest in the teaching of the personal essay, which, to my mind, helped foster the rise of what we’re now calling creative/literary nonfiction.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Murray’s ideas make as much sense to me now as they did back then. An aspiring writer myself, ever since I was a college freshman, I’d believed that learning to write in prescriptive forms had hindered my own growth as a writer.
I didn’t want to pass that approach on to my own students, so, with Murray’s thoughts in mind, I converted my writing classes into workshops; and, as he suggested, I began writing personal essays-- like those I was requiring from my students.
For the next several years, I kept on writing personal essays. And in time, I’ve come to realize that this form suited me—that is, it came to me more naturally, more spontaneously, than fiction, poetry (or playwriting) did. This was a significant break-thu, both for my teaching and my writing--a turning point, in fact.
I say this because when I was growing up, fiction and poetry (and to some extent, drama) were considered to be the only legitimate forms of literary writing. And because I wasn’t much of a fiction writer, poet, or playwright, I’d long ago convinced myself that I didn’t have what it took to be a literary writer. In part, it’s because of Murray’s work that the personal essay is now considered to be a legitimate form of literature.
It was me who first sought him out. For several years, I’d run into Don at conventions and conferences. And when I’d ask him questions about writing and teaching, he was surprisingly receptive and enthusiastic. Knowing Murray, I believe that he saw our dialogue as a lively give-and-take between two like-minded colleagues. Which is a flattering, generous way to describe our growing rapport. It was the kind of gesture that came naturally to him. But I knew better. To me, this wasn’t so much a meeting of minds as it was the beginning of a relationship between a mentor and a future mentee (if such a word even exists).
I’d had a few mentors in the past, but sometimes what started out as a cooperative alliance became a battle over who had more power or control. These conflicts felt like petty skirmishes between brothers and sisters.
With Don, it was just the opposite. He was, as all good mentors are, a permission giver, not a gatekeeper. Nothing from him but encouragement and common sense advice. I remember once complaining to him about all the rejection slips my manuscripts were getting. His laughed to himself and said, “Mike, the acceptances are just as irrational as the rejections. Just keep writing.”
It was something I didn’t fully understand until much later when I became the editor of a literary journal.
Don passed away in 2006. Soon after, I founded the literary journal, Fourth Genre, and with Bob Root our anthology, also titled, The Fourth Genre, gave us a measure of credibility as teachers of creative nonfiction, as well as some standing as commentators on the form. And when my memoir, Still Pitching came out, I could finally claim (to myself) that I was a teaching writer. All of this I got from Don.
Let me take a step back for a moment. Just before Don passed away, several of the things he’d believed in so passionately were just on the verge of happening. The personal essay, for one, has, over the last several years, become the aesthetic in composition classes the same way that fiction and poetry are in creative writing classes. Moreover, dozens of creative writing classes and programs have added literary nonfiction to the mix. And because TA's in those programs are often asked to teach composition, they too have become more familiar with the essay. As a result, beginning teachers of writing, as Don had always believed they should be, are practicing writers themselves. Who’d a thunk it way back when.
To my mind Don Murray was the real thing. He could talk the talk and walk the walk. And every so often when I think of him, a passage from The Great Gatsby comes to mind. In describing his first encounter with Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Caraway says, “Gatsby concentrated on ‘you’ with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.... he believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that he had precisely the impression of you, that at your best, you hoped to convey.” Don always had the knack of making me feel that way about myself. In return, the highest compliment I can pay is to acknowledge that, not only am I a better teacher and writer but I’m also a better human being from having known him.
As I said, I’m hardly the only one who feels this way. Don had a profound affect on so many teaching and writing careers. Were he here today though, I’m sure he’d disclaim it. But, this is, after all, a piece of creative nonfiction. Which means that I’ve got my version and he’s got his. And whatever he might or might not disclaim, it’s largely because of his influence that, today, in the latter stages of my career, I’m a teaching writer, a practicing essayist/ memoirist, and an active contributor to the continuously evolving form of literary/creative nonfiction.
Our culture, our educational system in particular, too often rewards homogenous thinking, prescriptive formulas, and monkey-see, monkey-do tactics and strategies. And because of all the standardized tests that rule our public school’s curriculum, we’re now in a period that reminds me of where we were when I first encountered Don. And yet, there are still innovative and independent thinkers out there, writers and teachers who, like Donald Murray, want to change the existing landscape for the better.
I’ll miss his generosity of spirit, his encouragement, and his support of my writing. And, of course, the permission he gave me to take risks, both as a writer and a teacher. And now that I’ve become an elder myself, it’s my turn to be the kind of mentor to my students that he was to me.
Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
Blog # 32