My wish? To be mentored by Madeleine L’Engle.
In my twenties, I wrote a letter to Madeleine L’Engle.
I knew the chances of hearing back from her were very low. She was busy and surely couldn’t respond personally to every reader. Knowing these truths didn’t stop me from harboring a fantasy that somehow, in some way, my letter would spark a connection between the two of us. In the end, I did hear back from Madeleine. Her assistant wrote me a sweet note to say that Madeleine had been touched by my letter and wished me all the best with my writing.
I realized that I had received more than most people do. And still, I couldn’t help feeling slightly tragic about the situation. Tragic enough, actually, that I spent time unpacking the issue. What did I want? Why did I want it? Was there a way I could achieve that goal even if I couldn’t spend time with Madeleine herself?
A quick side note: I’ve written before about the superpowers that belong to writers. The scenario I just described is a prime example. Writers know in their bones that what a character wants isn’t always what she ends up achieving. Since this truth applies to characters, it’s not hard to see how it applies to our real lives, too.
In any case, as I unpacked my wish, here’s what I discovered.
1. Mentorship is the art of asking resonant questions.
While mentors often have life experiences we seek, mentorship isn’t about being given a step-by-step guide. Someone else’s story is unique and particular to their own life circumstances. However, their stories offer connection points that lead us to questions of our own. The best mentors open discussions and then listen as we explore the resulting questions and possible answers. Through asking questions and seeking answers, we unlock the answers and that next-step clarity that we seek.
2. Often, we’re already being mentored without realizing it.
Why did I want Madeleine L’Engle to mentor me? Because she already had. Through her nonfiction and fiction, she had already led me to deep questions that sparked significant growth. She had unlocked next steps for me. What I wanted was more of that experience. It’s not only writers who can be mentors. Visual artists mentor us through their artworks and their artist statements and stories. Musicians mentor us through their music, their liner notes, and their interviews on the process. The same is true for dancers, teachers, chefs, gardeners … any creative person whose work results in something we can observe, examine and explore.
3. In order to make use of the mentorship at our fingertips, we need to think in specifics.
As an enthusiastic reader of Madeleine L’Engle, I gained a certain level of mentorship. To dive deep, I thought I needed to meet her in person. Had she been sitting with me in person, however, I’m sure she would have turned the focus back to me. She would have asked me questions, pushed me to reflect, and invited me to make discoveries. I wondered: what if I read her work with my specific questions in mind? Might I stumble across clues that would lead me to deeper discoveries––in writing craft, in mindset, in creativity? It turned out that by bringing specific intention to the reading process, I entered into an entirely new level of mentorship with Madeleine L’Engle. The amazing thing was that not only could I have her as my mentor, but any other author who I also admired. I had a new skill set that allowed me to learn from the masters.
As another side note, it’s important to point out that I continue to work monthly with an actual living, breathing mentor. An outside perspective provides insight into our blind spots, encouragement and accountability. Finding ways to mentor with the masters doesn’t replace our need for authentic connection with advisors. However, once you learn the skills needed to mentor with the masters, libraries, museums and even Netflix turn into treasure troves of learning opportunities.
What skills are needed?
- Observe a poem, painting or film to identify what is working.
- Analyze specifically why and how that element of craft works.
- Experiment with similar strategies in your own work.
- Riff on the strategies until you make them your own.
And don’t forget that you can replace “poem, painting or film” in the above list with “creative life” or any other focus that appeals to you with regard to one of your heroes.
Here are your action steps:
- Choose a hero-mentor and decide what you’d like to learn.
- Reach out to someone you know and respect. Ask them if they’d meet with you regularly as you pursue your learning goals.
- Give them permission to challenge you, and commit to listening fully without defending yourself. Remember, growth takes courage and determination.
- Get started!