Textcetera: Making the most of mentorship

Small words of encouragement can make a big difference in a burgeoning writer’s life. For author and journalist Evelyn C. White, one such moment came in high school. “I was encouraged by my honours English teacher to continue writing,” she recalls. “If memory serves, he was especially impressed with a paper I wrote on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I’m sure I pointed out the racist themes in the novel.”

Receiving advice from a trusted mentor can help emerging writers hone their voice and give them the confidence to pursue their own writing career. As Evelyn notes, “encouragement and support of ‘minority’ writers is especially important in a world where, quiet as it has been kept, most people are not white, are not male, and don’t speak English.” Recently, Evelyn had the opportunity to encourage and support Robert de la Chevotière as part of the 2021 Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program. Below, Evelyn and Robert share some of their advice on how writers can make the most of a mentorship experience.

Find someone you click with

For Evelyn, “a good mentorship pairing is built on mutual respect. Following through on appointments. Being mindful of each other’s whole life re: family, work obligations, ‘down’ days, fatigue, rage against the state of the world, etc. Not sweating the small stuff and always keeping sight of the big picture.”

Robert also valued working with another Black writer who could better understand how his lived experiences influenced his creative work. “We clicked,” he says. “It was so easy talking, listening, laughing. I especially loved her support. She doesn’t just speak the words. She has such a way of conveying her sincerity that it resonates strongly with me. It was reassuring to hear that my voice was important, as was my story, its characters, setting, food, language, and the culture within it. It felt so good just ‘telling it as it is,’ not having to explain or justify the multicultural Blackness in the manuscript.”

“Robert and I were always on the same page regarding the impact that ‘cosmic forces’ (namely our African ancestors) can have on our writing,” Evelyn adds. “We both believe in honouring their sacrifices by digging deep to develop and present our best work.”

Check in regularly

With so many competing priorities, it is good for mentors and mentees to be intentional about checking in with each other, setting aside consistent times to do so. “Robert and I had regular, usually hour-long phone conversations at 4 pm on Saturdays,” Evelyn notes.

Other mentorship pairings in the Alistair MacLeod program have met for big-picture chats over coffee or shared manuscript feedback via email. There’s no right or wrong way to check in, so long as you find a rhythm that works for you both.

Set goals, but be flexible

While it can be helpful to set clear and achievable goals for your time together, it’s also important to recognize that your mentorship may sometimes need to take a back seat to daily life. If you’re not able to meet a deadline or attend a check in meeting here or there, that’s okay. Be sure to communicate your situation so everyone is on the same page and adjustments to the review schedule can be made.

For Robert, it helped that Evelyn made it clear that quality of writing, not quantity, was the goal. She helped him understand, first, “that I should not feel rushed to get it done as I am on no one’s clock, and second, that I should consider writing to the most intelligent reader, and to not short-change anyone of their reading experience. Also, I had to come to terms with not self-censoring myself or my experience to fit with Eurocentric value systems.”

Incorporate feedback that strengthens your own voice

It’s possible that creative differences may strain a mentorship pairing. In this case, Evelyn has some simple advice. “If the mentorship is not working, I’d suggest having an honest conversation, as soon as possible, about shutting it down and moving on. No harm, no foul. My mantra: ‘Save the drama for your Mama.’”

However, in Robert and Evelyn’s case, they connected so well from the beginning that it was easy to have meaningful conversations about Robert’s manuscript. Part of Evelyn’s guidance was to share with Robert “similar work (re: themes, style) by other authors,” piquing new thoughts and perspectives on his own book. Robert appreciated this holistic approach, which helped him examine his story within a broader context.

“Mentees should definitely consider any advice given,” encourages Robert, “especially in terms of the big picture of navigating the writing and publishing process.” That said, “mentorship is a partnership, and suggestions are lenses through which others view our work. We must have our own vision of what we want for our manuscript, and we should be able to discern what advice or suggestions to take and how best to apply those. I trusted the advice given to me by Evelyn and knew that she would not lead me astray. I also believe strongly in not being afraid to ‘kill my darlings.’ At the end of the day, it’s the writer’s manuscript and their name attached to it. And if any suggestion doesn’t make the writer happy, they shouldn’t take them. However, I would say, at least try it and see. For me, that has always been the better choice. Maybe it wasn’t about the change even, but the exploration of the rewriting. Rewriting is always better. As Evelyn reminds me, ‘The best writing is rewriting.’”

For a free, professional mentorship opportunity, consider applying to WFNS’s Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program. (The 2021-2022 application deadline is October 8, 2021.) Interested writers can super-charge their application with our 5 Tips for Preparing an Application, which gleans advice from key behind-the-scenes Mentorship Program participants.

For more informal mentorship opportunities, Evelyn C. White suggests that folks contact a writer they admire (and whose writing is similar to their own) and politely “ask for recommendations of books, workshops, or organizations that might strengthen the work.”

WFNS also maintains free Writing Group Listings, which may help you find peer-to-peer feedback opportunities.

textcetera is a blog series exploring the writer’s life beyond craft. “Making the most of mentorship” was written by K.R. Byggdin.

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Recommended Experience Levels

The Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia (WFNS) recommends that participants in any given workshop have similar levels of creative writing and / or publication experience. This ensures that each participant gets value from the workshop⁠ and is presented with information, strategies, and skills that suit their career stage. The “Recommended experience level” section of each workshop description refers to the following definitions used by WFNS.

  • New writers: those with less than two years’ creative writing experience and/or no short-form publications (e.g., short stories, personal essays, or poems in literary magazines, journals, anthologies, or chapbooks).
  • Emerging writers: those with more than two years’ creative writing experience and/or numerous short-form publications.
  • Early-career authors: those with 1 or 2 book-length publications or the equivalent in book-length and short-form publications.
  • Established authors: those with 3 or 4 book-length publications.
  • Professional authors: those with 5 or more book-length publications.

Please keep in mind that each form of creative writing (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and writing for children and young adults) provides you with a unique set of experiences and skills, so you might consider yourself an ‘established author’ in one form but a ‘new writer’ in another.

For “intensive” and “masterclass” creative writing workshops, which provide more opportunities for peer-to-peer feedback, the recommended experience level should be followed closely.

For all other workshops, the recommended experience level is just that—a recommendation—and we encourage potential participants to follow their own judgment when registering.

If you’re uncertain of your experience level with regard to any particular workshop, please feel free to contact us at communications@writers.ns.ca