A subtle but important difference distinguishes mentors and teachers. A teacher has greater knowledge than a student; a mentor has greater perspective. In this sense, a mentor is more like an editor—or the best kind of editor. Maxwell Perkins comes to mind. He was able to realize his writers’ true voice through his editorial intervention. In the case of one famous protégé, Thomas Wolfe, this meant cutting away huge swathes of material that obscured the good, true stuff from view. Gordon Lish’s relationship to Raymond Carver was less clear-cut. He, too, cleared away thickets of verbiage from Carver’s stories. But if we consider those stories before and after Lish’s intervention, it is hard to say whether Lish imposed his own minimalist vision on the more baroque Carver or whether he brought Carver’s best writerly self to the surface. Arguments could be made either way. In the former case, Lish would have been Carver’s teacher; in the latter, his mentor.
My own experience with this distinction goes back to my father. When I was growing up, he always read and carefully edited whatever I wrote. He was my first teacher. His interest in my writing and his profound respect for language helped shape me as a scholar and writer. But he also imposed his own voice and inserted his own predilections into my work when I was too young to have my own. Hence, he helped to shape these things in me while also delaying and possibly inhibiting the development of my own style.
I had teachers in high school, college, and graduate school, but did not find mentors until later, when I met my husband, Alan Penziner, and my Drexel colleague, Dave Jones. Both have been my mentors. They helped me clear away the clutter that obscured what I wanted to say. They listened to and nurtured my voice. I have a cleaner, clearer style and a keener ear for words and cadence as a result of their editing. My thinking grows crisper through conversation with them. Most significantly, though, I am more confident in my opinions.
This has strengthened my ability to mentor others. Having been mentored well, I know whom I can and cannot mentor. A student recently asked if I would be his senior thesis advisor and showed me some of his work. Of the four stories he shared, one stood out, not so much for being better than the others or more in line with my own style, but for being a work that I could help improve. “If you focus on this story and this style of writing, I can advise you,” I told him. “If you go with the other stories, you’d be better off with another advisor.” He eventually chose to develop the other work with a different advisor and went on to win the senior essay prize. A good result. Part of knowing how to mentor is knowing when you aren’t a good fit.
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