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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Importance of Mentorship

Yesterday, I spent an hour in the pool with a good friend, going over the intricacies of the free style stroke. I am a longtime swimmer, both on swim teams and for pure pleasure, and I have also taught swimming to youngins at Coral Gables' Venetian Pool. I must say that I learned so much about swimming by teaching it. I thought about different aspects of the strokes that I had never considered before. This is probably because I was learning from a champion swimmer who has made this her life.

My friend knows how to swim. She's swam all her life. But -- she's never actually been taught how to swim. She gets tired easily, she says. Her legs feel leaden after a few laps. I could see why after I watched her cross the pool once. Her kicks are inefficient and she isn't breathing properly. Yes, she can jump into the deep end of the pool and make it to the wall without drowning. The problem is that she won't do it the best way that she possibly could.

Which is where I come in. I watch her swim, I swim alongside her, I try my best to make sure my strokes are an example of what hers could be with some practice. I give her pointers and praise. Afterwards, she tells me what a difference our short time together has made.

"It's important to have a teacher," I tell her.
"I was just going to watch YouTube videos," is her response.

We live in a world where we can learn anything on our own. The internet provides us with a cacophony of resources for every hobby and craft. I am not against it. But I do believe that having a real, live teacher makes a world of difference. This breathing body can tell you all the same things that a Wiki How-To article can do, but you can ask questions and perhaps discover even more than you set out to learn. This person can give you the wisdom collected through their past experiences so that you can learn from their mistakes.

When I wanted to learn how to bake bread, I apprenticed for an artisan baker. When I wanted to learn how to grow food, I spent several seasons working alongside experienced vegetable growers, watching how they did things and asking why they made the decisions that they did. It's the same reason why I go to yoga classes even though I could very well practice by myself in my living room.

This is also the reason why I joined an MFA program. I wanted that living, breathing person swimming beside me who has spent a lifetime swimming miles upon miles in many different bodies of water. And luckily, I have found several of these mentors in my program.

Just recently, I learned Transcendental Meditation from a great teacher, Prudence Bruns, the inspiration behind The Beatle's song, Dear Prudence. I have dabbled in meditation for many years, but it has never clicked for me like it did during this training. Every time we met, I had more questions for her. She brought in past experiences, or the experiences of her pupils, and taught us a great deal in a short amount of time. I hope to continue learning from her as the years go by and my meditation practice deepens.

And so, I urge you to seek out a mentor in your craft. Perhaps there is a skill you've been dreaming to learn. Find someone in your area who is an expert in this, and offer them a hand. People don't generally turn down help. It's in working alongside them that you will have the opportunity to learn from their wisdom and experience. A few hours spent working alongside a skilled quiltmaker or master beekeeper could prove to be invaluable in your development as a quiltmaker or beekeeper. Not only will you gain the knowledge, but you might gain a lifelong friend in the process.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

MFA Year One: A Retrospective

I've heard people say that if you can't remember who you were as a writer when you started grad school, then you're doing it right. You shouldn't remember what genre you signed up for or who your favorite writer is. Everything is probably a massive jumble in your mind and your world should be turned upside down. At least, that's been my experience.

With my first year of graduate school behind me, I'd like to take a moment to look back and see how far I've traveled since I started this journey in August. In many ways, this experience has given me what I expected it would - a supportive and inspiring writing community, new ways to think about writing, and basically a full immersion into this strange and exciting writing world. But it has also opened my world up in ways that I hadn't imagined.

I've been able to meet people who have dedicated themselves to their art and made me believe that this dream is possible. They have given me a direction in which to point my arrow. My professors and schoolwork have shown me what kind of writer I am in terms of content, style, routine. But they have also forced me to blow all that to pieces and see what happens when the dust settles. My teachers have given me points of entry into the craft that preserve its sacredness but also embrace the ever changing, ever flowing process of creating meaningful art.

A few accomplishments from the past year:
  • Survived first year of taking graduate level courses
  • Survived first year of teaching at the college level
  • Kept up this blog! (40 posts and 2400 page views since August!)
  • Read and studied nearly 50 books in depth
  • Created a writing space in my home and some semblance of a writing routine
  • Produced four major writing project - two creative nonfiction, one children's lit, and one fiction
  • Helped many students in the writing studio
  • Rocked AWP in all of its crazy glory
  • Planned a body-based writing retreat
  • Worked closely with a private client to write her autobiography
  • Got accepted into the Art Farm artist residency for a month this summer!
  • Birthed my thesis project idea :)
There is still a lot to look forward to. Here are a few goals for the next year:
  • Finish the first draft for my middle grade novel by the end of the summer
  • Get published in a notable literary magazine
  • Develop a solid writing routine
  • Explore other writing opportunities such as ghostwriting, journalistic articles, etc
As with any apprenticeship, the learning never ends. Even after these three years are over, I will still be a student of writing, as I am still learning new things about growing vegetables and baking bread. But I have learned some things about myself as a writer, like I will always be a genre hopper. I can't just choose one! I also understand a bit better what a writer's life looks like, from the glamorous side to the tough truth that most writers cannot make a living simply off of selling books.

Which brings me to the major questions any aspiring writer should ask themselves before starting down this road in earnest -- Why do you want to be a writer? Will you be happy if you never have your book turned into a blockbuster movie? What is your overall goal as a writer/artist? How badly do you want this?

Because being a writer is hard in ways that other things I have done, like farming, are not. Being a writer means contending with inner demons, uncertainty, doubt and rejection on a daily basis. Being a writer means being your own cheerleader because no one else cares if you're writing or not. Being a writer means saying no to other things in order to spend hours at the writing desk, doing the unglamorous work of putting words in the page, one by one. Arranging them in such a way that they will tell a story worth reading, maybe even a story that will speak to others. That's the hope, anyway.