My writing was disorganized and off-topic until I hired a professional mentor
New and experienced writers can benefit from working with a top-notch writing mentor.
When I was very young and later when I was in grade school, I was an avid reader and in a situation of emotional abandonment. I spent hours alone in the bedroom that I shared with my sister. At home we had a dictionary and a set of encyclopedias and these became my best friends. I spend countless hours reading the definitions of words that I’d heard and learning about historical figures that I came to envy. I sat on the floor cross-legged with my books and dreamed of becoming a writer.
I was introduced to my writing mentor after a friend pointed to an item about a writer’s group in the Nashville Scene publication. I read the description, including the sign-up and the location, and I made a commitment to enroll. I wasn't sure about the expectation but I remember feeling angst about exposing my writing to constructive criticism. On the first day of the course, It was evident that the instructor was an accomplished editor and writer. This was intimidating but I intuitively knew that I couldn't let that dissuade me and that I should trust the process.
"After the six weeks is up then what? If I get my story in shape, and I don't spontaneously combust, will you still work with me once or twice a month?" I emailed the course instructor who would later become my mentor. By the second or third class, I was over the shyness of reading my fiction and of hearing the group feedback.
"There are some things that you agonize over and some things that you write with ease. The longer you write and stay committed, the longer you learn from yourself as a writer. Patience and practicing being non-judgmental are key. what's the old adage? 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration," was the reply.
I decided to work one-on-one with the course instructor to learn the craft of writing. I needed to be held accountable because I was a flight-risk under the self-imposed pressure to create something meaningful and well-written.
“You have the perfect dysfunctional background to be a writer,” said my mentor after just one meeting with her to critique my fiction. When you’re working one-on-one in a coach-type environment you reveal information about your history, your evolution, and your current circumstance. Once again I'd revealed too much information to a mere acquaintance. Is this aspect of my character endearing transparency or carelessness, I honestly don't know. I hoped I'd been able to mask the shock and shame that I felt upon hearing the words.
I retreived a short story I'd begun five years earlier that had required a tremendous amount of historical research and genealogical research. At the time, I worked hard to capture the nuance of the story setting and to create characters from the late nineteenth century. It had been easy to give up on the story after I gave way to negative self-talk and so I tucked it away in a filing bin.
"It's completely clear to me what needs to be revised to make this the story you're wanting to tell--and not only do I think you can do it, but I also think this is a perfect story to learn those craft skills on--through the revision process. Some stories come out whole cloth--they practically write themselves and others are a real learning curve and struggle. I think this revision clarifies what is needed--so nothing is wasted effort. I think you have a very strong, excellent story in the making." With this email, I became both hopeful and apprehensive.
I was promised “…something snacky and tea,” and was invited to my mentor's apartment for the story edit review. I felt ready for the come-to-your-deity meeting because I made a decision to stay the course and complete the story with a mindset to have it published.
My emotion, and passive-aggressive underpining, was thinly disguised by humor but it was at the surface and palbable. In contrast, the critique delivered by the mentor was emotionless and matter-of-fact which is exactly what was required. The phrase "Sometimes you have to kill your darlings." was difficult to hear. What I believed were some of the best bits had to be deleted because they didn't add to the story or they detracted from it.
We reviewed my egregious use of helping verbs, the content, style, and overall structure including punctuation and quotations. My story included instances where I left the reader hanging because I’d failed to provide clarity. There were several bright points where I was praised for my descriptions in keeping with my theme.
I had to re-learn some facets of grammar that I’d long forgotten or it's possible I'd been skipping class the day the information was reviewed. I learned how to construct dialogue and the technical aspects of presenting dialogue. The edits were plentiful and disconcerting until I examined each one and decided that most were simple fixes. Some edits would be more complex and require a good deal of thought to correct while maintaining the flow of the adjacent paragraphs and the intention of the story.
“You’ve got to create sympathy for this character,” said my mentor as she referred to my protagonist. I remember wondering how I could possibly create sympathy for a man for whom I’d tried to garner so much loathing. This was a tall order in the required list of edits and I was uncertain about my ability to accomplish it.
I went home after our meeting and for a while, I couldn’t look at the printed pages with the notations in red ink. I experienced a mix of emotion that included disappointment about my writing performance and the elation of having created a short story that was reasonably in-tact and close to completion.
I paced, I cleaned, I yelled at the cats. Then I sat down and scoured a few newspaper articles from the era and in the specific geographical setting. I searched for the foundation of a scene that I could weave into my story to create sympathy for my protagonist to add dimension and interest.
Two or three days later I presented the completed draft via email. I began to submit the story via Submittable and in three hours I had an acceptance with a somewhat prestigious online literary review. I kept reading and re-reading the acceptance email with a wave of emotion and gratitude.
"This is so wonderful. It seems you've placed in a solid and serious literary publication." I felt relief, a sense of accomplishment, and enduring gratitude to the mentor who is now a personal friend and a valued, lifelong relationship.
© 2020 Sharon R Hill
Liz Westwood from UK on June 04, 2020:
You make an interesting and convincing case for a writing mentor. The result is impressive in your case. Congratulations.